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In final year, Obama encourages staff to ‘stay on offense’

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    In this Nov. 19, 205 file photo, President Barack Obama listens as Canadas Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during their bilateral meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila, Philippines.

WASHINGTON >> In June, during one of the best stretches of his presidency, Barack Obama strode through a West Wing hallway exclaiming: “Offense! Stay on offense!”

It was a rallying cry for a White House that suddenly seemed to find its footing in the final quarter of Obama’s tenure. An Asia-Pacific trade agreement was moving forward, as were the diplomatic opening with Cuba and work on an historic nuclear accord with Iran. The Supreme Court upheld a key tenet of the president’s long-embattled health care law and legalized gay marriage nationwide. Even in the depths of tragedy following a church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, the president struck an emotional chord with his stirring eulogy for the victims.

“I said at the beginning of this year that interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter — and we are only halfway through,” Obama said during his annual year-end news conference.

But the seventh year of Obama’s presidency also challenged anew his cautious and restrained approach to international crises, particularly in the Middle East. Attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, heightened fears of terror on American soil and Obama’s attempts to reassure Americans fell flat. And a seemingly endless string of mass shootings elsewhere in the country exposed the sharp limits of Obama’s power to implement the gun control measures he speaks of with passion.

Obama now stares down 11 months before his successor is chosen in an election shaping up to be a referendum on his leadership at home and abroad. He stirs deep anger among many Republicans, a constant reminder of his failure to make good on campaign promises to heal Washington’s divisiveness. But he remains popular among Democrats and foresees a role campaigning for his party’s nominee in the general election.

The president is packing his final year with foreign travel and has about a half-dozen trips abroad planned, including a likely visit to Cuba. The White House’s legislative agenda is slim and centers mostly on areas where he already has overlapping priorities with Republicans, including final passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and criminal justice reform. But he’s also eyeing provocative executive actions, including an expansion of background checks for gun purchases and the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

“We recognize there’s limited time left,” said Jennifer Psaki, Obama’s communications director.


At times, Obama’s second term has appeared to play out in reverse.

He struggled to capitalize on his decisive re-election victory in 2012, stumbling through a two-year stretch that exposed the limits of his power and made him a political liability for his party. Then in an unexpected twist, his party’s devastating defeats in the 2014 midterm election spurred one of the most productive years of his presidency, positioning Obama to be a valuable political ally for Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.

“Barack Obama will loom over the election,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a longtime Obama adviser who left the White House earlier this year.

Advisers say the Supreme Court’s ruling in May, which upheld the subsidies at the heart of Obama’s health care law, came as a particular relief to the president. The decision ensures the law survives his presidency, even as Republican candidates campaign on pledges to repeal it.

Obama sees the Iran nuclear accord, Pacific Rim trade pact and sweeping climate change agreement finalized in Paris earlier this month as examples of how America should wield its power on the world stage. The agreements have driven the debate in the presidential campaign for long stretches— a point of pride for a White House eager to show that the president remains the country’s most relevant politician even as he eyes the exits.

Yet Obama hasn’t been able to escape the Middle East. No matter how many times he tries to pivot to Asia or rebrand U.S. foreign policy as more about diplomacy than military might, the volatile region continues to be the dominant force in the way his foreign policy is viewed.

Nearly every candidate running for president — including Clinton, his former secretary of state — is calling for more aggressive action to fight the Islamic State group. Obama has inched the military deeper into the conflict, including backtracking on his refusal to put U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, but has largely stuck with his initial strategy of combating the extremist group from the air.

The terror attacks in Paris and California, however, have taken a worrying but distant fight against the Islamic State militants and made it top-of-mind for many Americans. White House advisers say Obama is well aware that he misjudged the public’s level of anxiety about terrorism and must scramble to counter what he sees as overheated rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates that filled the void he created by his tepid initial response.

Aides say outlining an alternative to Republicans on foreign policy and other matters will be a central part of his final State of the Union address to Congress on Jan. 12. The address was purposely scheduled earlier than usual to give the president space to make his case before primary voting begins. He departed for his annual Hawaii vacation with a draft of the speech in hand.

Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, said a well-crafted speech can only go so far in helping Obama reassure the public of his national security stewardship.

“The only way he regains ground is concrete victories where people can literally see progress made,” Zelizer said. “This is an area where he has to have policy gains”


As he closed out 2015, Obama promised he wouldn’t fade into the background in his final year in office. But he’s also realistic about the limited legislative opportunities for a Democratic president and Republican-led Congress in a presidential election year.

His relatively modest congressional agenda includes final passage of the TPP trade pact, criminal justice reforms, dealing with Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and funding programs to address the spike in opioid use.

At least some Republicans say they’re willing to work with the president in his final year.

“I think if you look at what we’ve been able to work with him on this year, it’s a good, telling piece of the kinds of things we can do next year,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. “We worked very well on education reform, the highway bill, on human trafficking legislation — so there were some significant bipartisan accomplishments that we have been able to achieve this year.”

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., echoed that sentiment, saying “There are a lot of opportunities” to work with the president in his final year in office.

Of course, Obama’s legacy will be determined far more by the outcome of the presidential campaign than his 2016 legislative agenda. Since many of his most prominent moves have been the result of executive actions, a Republican president could largely wipe them away, while a Democrat is more likely to keep them in place and perhaps even expand on them.

White House aides say the president is eager to campaign for the party’s nominee, as well as Democrats in other races. He chafed at being kept on the sidelines in the 2014 midterms, and advisers used Democrats’ sweeping losses in that campaign as an I-told-you-so moment for party officials.

This time, Obama isn’t waiting for an invitation from the Democratic nominee to make his campaign plans.

“I will have a Democratic successor, and I will campaign very hard to make that happen,” he said.

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  • Accomplishments of Obama… Massive increase of the federal debt, massive expansion of people on public assistance, accompanied with open borders , race relations much worse, creation of isis by pulling our troops out of Iraq, people fearing terrorists, A lousy healthcare system packed with freeloaders with exemption for unions and politicians, etc… He could have done so much good. It is really disappointing that instead of a solid leader, we got an activist , who has ended up screwing up things. It is not what the last guy did, its what he has done, and in my opinion, he has failed to make things better. Hopefully, he sticks to minor things like closing the gunshow loophole for his last year..

  • Thank You President Obama for taking this country out of the worst recession since the great depression and making America great again. Really sad when republicans feel that America was great when they lied us into two wars and gave tax cuts to the rich during a time of war.

      • IMO, he has been the most divisive president in my lifetime. The man cares more about political outcomes than he does this country. I was hopeful that he would bring this country together, like Mandela did in South Africa, but instead he’s made race relations the worst in decades. The man was elected by both blacks and whites but he continues to believe that the only reason people oppose him is because he’s black. Because he’s not a leader, he has been unable to work meaningful deals with his opposition, so instead he calls them names and uses brute force to get his way. I hope this country has learned what happens when you elect a totally unqualified candidate (a community organizer) for this important office.

    • I give him credit for steering us through that recession. I was in favor of the bailouts. However, I don’t know why you are hammering on Bush. You sound like Obama….not my fault, blame the other guy.

    • Always good for a laugh, you comments. Meanwhile, here’s the sad, spiteful legacy President EmptySuitPantsOnFire is leaving us:

      Inflaming an ever increasing racial divide.

      Impoverishing the largest progressive run state, California, with the highest percentage of those living under the poverty line.

      Ignoring our soon to be insolvent entitlement programs (Social Security Disability next year).

      Presiding over the slowest economic recovery, the lowest labor participation rate in 4 decades.

      Squandering US influence in the world at the expense of vital national interests, particularly the Middle East.

      Negotiating a nuclear agreement that will set of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and actually shelter the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

      An immigration policy that amounts to the dissolution of our borders in order to import democrat party voters.

      Use of the IRS like a sort of political gestapo to shut up conservative groups.

      Supporting the sale of baby body parts.

      These appear to be the guiding principles of Mr. Obama and the Democrat party, either by design or by ignorance, aimed at a slow destruction of the country.

        • Is “wrongness” one of your hobbies? If so, you’re a champion at it.

          “Putting these factors together—the compositional changes between gender/age groups and the structural trends within gender/age groups—the result is that only around a quarter of the total drop in labor force participation over the last six years is structural [Educational point: retirements are part of this “structural” component]. This means that around 75 percent of it is cyclical [Educational point: “cyclycal” as in derived from cyclical economic factors]. In other words, there are now around 5.8 million workers who are not in the labor force but who would be if job opportunities were strong. If these workers were in the labor market looking for work, the unemployment rate right now would be 10.0 percent instead of 6.6 percent. That is a lot of additional slack in the labor market.”

          Oh, yeah. You’re welcome.

  • Yep, stay on offense….keep driving toward that cliff…..

    Obama is the worst president we have ever had. About as weak a leader as I’ve seen. And at the same time, about the most prideful. Weak and prideful….not a good combination.

  • Obama said he was going to fundamentally transform the US and few thought it more than more BS from a politician. Well, it appears he has been having success turning us into a third world $hithole and the old certainly can recognize this.
    The Paul supporting young people will flow to a Grey Champion. The young morons looking at Bernie will change as soon as they get a paycheck and see what that FICA guy took from it.

  • He says he is going to work hard (on our dime) to ensure that a Democrat follows him. It is time to turn out all the rascals.. both Republican and democrat.. Career politicians do not have our best interests at heart, but they work for some of us, just enough to get reelected…. People rise up to support him because they or a family member are making out under the current system.

    • Interest rates are going up, unemployment at record lows, baby boomers feeling financially secure enough to retire in mass so much that they account for 80% of the reduction in labor force, the longest bull run in the past 20 years, housing prices increasing, energy and food prices falling, strong dollar, yeah, this economy is really bad right?

  • The Republicans didn’t want a recovery from the last recession. They wanted America to go broke so they could rip up the union contracts, so that a lower compensation rate could be established for Main Street.

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