It’s hard to imagine a single person who had a worse year in politics than Barack Obama. His policy agenda went nowhere in Congress; his approval ratings tanked; and his party got demolished in midterm elections. On foreign policy, critics had harsh words for the way he dealt with Russia, ISIS, and even Ebola.
Yet, last week when Obama gave his end-of-the-year press conference, he very much appeared to be a man without a care in the world — energetic, confident, and seemingly liberated. With two years left in his presidency, Obama should be a lame duck. Instead, he looks more like the honey badger.
In a popular and hilarious YouTube clip, the honey badger has been immortalized as a bold, fearless, and undaunted creature who doesn’t care. That’s pretty much been Obama’s modus operandi since the midterm elections.
First there was Obama’s trip to China, in which the two nations reached a historic agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, paving the way for a possible climate deal in 2015. Next came Obama’s executive order on immigration that will provide temporary legal status and forestall deportation for millions of illegal immigrants. Then there was the move earlier this month to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, ending a failed five-decade policy of political and economic isolation. In between, Obama endorsed tougher rules for companies that provide broadband access, to the benefit of consumers; issued an executive order protecting the Bristol Bay salmon fishery in Alaska; and upended a tax bill in Congress — supported by prominent Democrats, including Senator Harry Reid — that he said wouldn’t do enough to help working families. He’s even used the symbolic elements of the bully pulpit. In last week’s press conference, he purposely called only on female journalists; and at a Toys for Tots event this week he made a point to put traditional toys for boys — like sports equipment and Legos — in the bin for girls. When questioned about the move, the president asked derisively, “Girls don’t like toys?”
In the past, one could imagine the often hyper-cautious Obama unwilling to risk the wrath of Republicans or taking positions that easily typecast him as not just a Democrat, but heaven forbid, a liberal. But just like the honey badger, Obama doesn’t care.
So what’s going on here? First and foremost, the current 113th Congress is the second least productive in history. What was the least productive Congress? That would be the 112th Congress. With the GOP now in control of the Senate, the chances of anything getting done in Washington over the next two years has gone from about highly unlikely to “you’re joking, right?” So if Obama wants to accomplish anything in his last two years as president he’s going to have to do it himself. Second, with no more elections to wage, Obama can afford to throw political caution to the wind and push forward with his agenda, secure in the knowledge that he won’t be facing the voters again.
The irony, however, is that Obama really isn’t taking huge political risks. Everything that he’s done in the past six weeks — from immigration and the environment to opening relations with Cuba — is not only popular, but stands to help his party — in 2016 and in the years beyond. For example, Democrats already had a stranglehold on the nation’s Hispanic vote — Obama’s immigration order will only strengthen it.
There’s another understated political benefit: It’s making Republicans crazy. The one thing that truly unites the GOP these days is an emotional and irrational dislike of the president. So every time Obama does something the Republicans don’t like, it not only makes them mad but gets them talking about impeachment and other loopy political ideas. In other words, it encourages Republicans to act even more extreme than they have for the past six years. That might not necessarily be great for the country, but in heightening the contrast between the two parties, it’s a pretty good deal for Democrats.
To be sure, Obama’s boldness is a fairly constricted one. He is pushing the envelope within the well-established boundaries of American politics — and certainly not as far as some of his liberal critics would prefer. Still, by sharpening the broad differences between Democrats and Republicans, he is providing Americans with a much clearer sense of the stark choices they face from the two parties. The candidate who ran as a post-partisan uniter in 2008 has pretty much given up the dream of bipartisanship. To quote Phyllis Schlafly, Americans will be given “a choice, not an echo.’’ So while Obama might be a lame duck, his willingness to act unilaterally and take steps that bolster his party’s political base — and inflame Republicans — are helping ensure that he remains the most relevant figure in American politics. In short, welcome to the honey badger presidency.
Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.