So there he was.
The President Obama on display the past few weeks has been the one many of his supporters have been expecting since he took office. In a flurry of decisions—executive action providing legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants, a climate deal with China, the move toward normalization with Cuba—he's been decisive, bold, and seemingly oblivious to near-term political costs. Rather than fruitlessly trying to untangle Gordian knots on Capitol Hill, he's moved to slice through them with unilateral executive action. Obama swaggered so much during his year-end press conference last week that he looked as though he might lift the microphone from the podium and drop it on the stage, pop-star style, as he walked out.
It's quite a reversal for a president who watched Republicans romp so thoroughly in the November election that they now hold the most House seats they've had since the Depression. Yet Obama seems clearly liberated, in part because he no longer must constrain his actions for fear of hurting red-state congressional Democrats. On issues like immigration, Obama restrained himself, and almost all of those embattled Democrats lost anyway. He now looks to be operating under the Bobby McGee principle that freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.
But that's not quite true. The big vulnerability in Obama's approach is that his dramatic thrusts are all advancing through executive action, not legislation. That means that even if his agenda survives pushback from the Republican Congress (likely) and the courts (more uncertain), it can still be undone by the next president. Which in turn means the verdict on Obama unbound will pivot on whether his initiatives improve or diminish the chances of a Democrat succeeding him in 2016.
It's already a given that Obama will loom over 2016. Exit polls found that roughly four-fifths of voters who approved of Ronald Reagan in 1988, Bill Clinton in 2000 and George W. Bush in 2008 voted for their party's nominee to succeed them. Exactly 88 percent of the voters who disapproved of Reagan and Clinton voted for the other party's candidate; for Bush the number was two-thirds. If voters in 2016 look no more favorably on Obama than the electorate in 2014—when 44 percent approved of his performance and 55 percent disapproved—any Democratic nominee will face a stiff headwind.
Though Obama still faces significant doubts about his leadership and management skills, he can reasonably hope that events may lift his standing. With employment growth accelerating, the economy has already created more that six times as many jobs since he took office than during Bush's entire two terms. While his health care law still faces public skepticism and legal threats, it is contributing to positive trends on coverage and costs. Foreign crises can always erupt (see: The Interview) but Obama can point to gains against Russia, ISIS, and Ebola, and the possibility of a major international climate agreement next year.
His recent policy offensive follows a different political equation. The overall public reaction to his initiatives varies; for instance, polls show that slightly more Americans disapprove than approve of him acting unilaterally on immigration (though they continue to support the underlying move to legal status). The consistent note is that his actions inspire strong support within the Democrats' "coalition of the ascendant"—the growing groups of minorities, millennials, and socially liberal upscale whites, especially women, who powered his two victories. That helps explain why Hillary Clinton has quickly endorsed each of Obama's big recent moves.
In mirror image, Obama's actions are antagonizing core Republican groups, such as older and blue-collar whites. That is already pressuring the 2016 GOP presidential contenders to pledge to overturn his programs. But that exposes Republicans to the risk of systematically clashing with groups growing in the electorate, such as the U.S.-born Cubans who polls show support normalization far more than do those born in Cuba.
The White House is acutely conscious of creating these conflicts. One senior Obama adviser says the administration "To Do list" after 2012 included thinking "about how you lock in the Obama coalition for Democrats going forward. Because it's not a 100 percent certainty that they come out for the next Democrat." Part of the answer, the adviser said, was to pursue aggressive unilateral action on "a set of issues where we have an advantage "¦ and believe are substantively the right thing to do" and dare Republicans to oppose him.
Most Republicans are happy to take that bait, confident that what they see as Obama's overreach will energize conservatives and alienate independents in 2016. The White House is betting instead that Obama is helping the next Democratic nominee reassemble his winning coalition. By energizing the party base, Obama's fusillade could also free Clinton to stress an economic message that courts white-working class voters—if his flurry of left-leaning unilateral actions doesn't irrevocably alienate them first. Either way, with his defiant late-term resurgence, the president is not just making an abstract play for history, he is also concretely shaping the contest to succeed him.