It was supposed to be a joke. “Are you still president?” comedian Stephen Colbert asked Barack Obama in December.
But the question seemed to speak to growing weariness with the president and skepticism that anything will change in Washington during his final two years in office. Democrats already are checking out Obama’s potential successors. Emboldened Republicans are trying to push aside his agenda in favor of their own.
At times this year, Obama seemed ready to move on as well. He rebelled against the White House security “bubble.” He chafed at being sidelined by his party during midterm elections and having to adjust his agenda to fit the political interests of vulnerable Democrats who lost anyway.
Yet the election that was a disaster for the president’s party may have had a rejuvenating effect on him. The morning after the midterms, he told aides, “If I see you moping, you will answer to me.”
Comfortable and energized
People close to Obama say he is energized at not having to worry about helping — or hurting — Democrats in another congressional election on his watch. He has become more comfortable with his executive powers, moving unilaterally on immigration, Internet neutrality and climate change. And he sees legacy-building opportunities on the international stage, from an elusive nuclear deal with Iran to normalizing relations with Cuba.
“He gained some clarity for the next two years that is liberating,” said Jay Carney, who served as Obama’s press secretary until last spring. “He doesn’t have as much responsibility for others.”
Still, pillars of Obama’s second-term agenda — gun control, raising the federal minimum wage, universal preschool — seem destined to stand unfulfilled. Wrapping up the Iraq and Afghanistan wars isn’t turning out to be nearly the tidy success story Obama once envisioned. Even supporters say one of his top remaining priorities may have to be simply preventing Republicans from dismantling his earlier accomplishments.
The Yes-We-Can man is entering a twilight of maybes.
“I don’t care who you are, after eight years or six years of the presidency, your influence has eroded,” said Robert Dallek, a historian who has met with Obama. “Even someone like Eisenhower or Reagan, you just can’t sustain it.”
While White House officials know the presidency has challenges in its waning years, they say economic gains and executive actions on immigration and climate change show Obama still has influence.
“The president’s policy successes vastly outstripped his political successes” in 2014, said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior White House adviser.
Obama is realistically optimistic about what he can get done over the next two years, advisers say. He wants to try tax reform and sees opportunities to accelerate job creation.
A big question hanging over the White House is how much Obama, whose charisma once charmed the world, can still shape the national debate. “There’s almost always a point of diminishing returns on a president’s words,” said Jeff Shesol, a former presidential speechwriter for Bill Clinton.