WASHINGTON -- A month and a half ago, President Barack Obama went to the East Room of the White House to take his medicine. His party was fresh off a horrible midterm election loss. His name was toxic. One leading Democratic Senate candidate wouldn't even say whether she had voted for him in 2012. His failure to influence events globally, and the inability to pass major legislation domestically, had all contributed to a prevailing sense that the White House had lost its way.
The press conference was notable because Obama struck a defiant tone, pledging to plow forward on his planned executive actions even if Republicans had run against them. He seemed almost optimistic about the prospect of working with a Republican-run Senate and House. Obama was, it appeared, in denial.
But now, as he gets set to head to Hawaii for his annual Christmas vacation, it's beginning to seem like Obama knew more than the reporters who cover him. He achieved some legacy-defining victories during the lame-duck session. And in his year-end press conference on Friday, he showed a bit of swagger that seemed implausible in mid-November.
"Pick any metric that you want," he said. "America’s resurgence is real. We’re better off."
A good deal of Obama's enthusiasm is owed to a political landscape that, at least in the interim, worked well in his favor. Over the summer, he was shackled by calculations that he was a burden to the party, and he was virtually absent from the campaign trail. A series of crises seemed to overwhelm his presidency: from the claims backlog at the VA and the influx of young undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border to the rise of the Islamic State and the Ebola epidemic. November's election did not represent a Republican wave so much as an indictment of a sluggish Democratic agenda.
But elections come to a close, and crises eventually get resolved. With that comes the chance to breathe, if not claim triumph.
“We’ve gone through difficult times,” Obama said during his Friday press conference. “But through persistent effort and faith in the American people, things get better. The economy's gotten better. Our ability to generate clean energy's gotten better. We know more about how to educate our kids. We solved problems.”
By its own metrics, the administration had a majorly successful lame-duck session. Days after the post-election press conference, The Huffington Post sat down with a senior White House official to discuss what a successful end of the year would look like. The official named three priorities: passing funding to fight Ebola, getting the government funded "without drama," and confirming pending judicial nominees.
All those things, and more, have happened. The president issued an executive action on immigration, in the process granting legal protections to an estimated 5 million people. He struck a climate change deal with China, bringing the world's biggest polluter and one of its fiercest resisters of reform into the environmental protection movement. He has continued to oversee steady job growth and, for the first time, some signs that wage increases will be coming along with it. He relaxed the United States' policy toward Cuba and opened up relations with the country. And his health care law enabled Americans to successfully enroll in insurance for the second year in a row, a process that occurred almost entirely under the radar.
The question now is whether this is an interim period of achievement or if it will set the stage for more to come.
“I’m energized. I’m excited about the prospects for the next couple years,” Obama said Friday. “A new future is ready to be written. We’ve set the stage for this American moment.”
But the harsh reality, as the White House knows, is that it extending the lame-duck successes into a new Congress will be virtually impossible. In a nightmare scenario for the administration, much of what the president did will begin to unravel. A showdown looms in a matter of months over funding the Department of Homeland Security. Bills will likely be passed undoing some of Obama's environmental wins. His executive action on immigration and his new policy toward Cuba can be rolled back under the next president. The Supreme Court will issue a ruling that could fundamentally uproot his health care law.
And so naturally, the president seemed to get a bit defensive toward the end of Friday's press conference.
“I’m confident that I’ll be able to uphold vetoes,” he said. “If executive actions on areas like minimum wage or equal pay or having a more sensible immigration system are important to Republicans, if they care about those issues and these are bothering them, there is a very simple solution: pass bills and work with me to make sure I’m willing to sign those bills.”
More than any other politician, Obama knows that the current narrative surrounding his presidency is either inflated or wrong -- and certainly fleeting.