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.