Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

16 January 2015

And so it begins. The rumour mill is already abuzz with speculation about who will take part in the Republican primaries as Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush flirt with presidential runs.

All the white noise means it’s easy to forget that Barack Obama still has two years left in office. And while he may have lost control of Congress after mid-terms last year, dismissing him as a has-been would be facile.

Lame duck or not, the business end of Obama’s second mandate is going to be fascinating to watch. Like any occupant of the world’s most important job, this is the time when a president begins to think about the all-important idea of “legacy”. There’s an element of self-preservation, of course. Outgoing presidents often want to secure lucrative after-dinner speaker events and envoy roles that will ease them into retirement. Hubris, too, plays its part as leaders look to secure a place in the history books.

For all the criticism levelled against Obama – from the number of drone attacks he has green-lighted to his handling of the Mexico border – his two terms have been historic beyond any clumsy notions of race. He has a sense of his place in the presidential pantheon. The executive order on immigration, effectively granting amnesty if not full rights to scores of undocumented workers, may not have gone far enough for many diehard Democrats but it also came up against intense opposition from the GOP.

December’s rapprochement with Cuba – the fruit of secret talks started in 2013 – might not lead to an end of the trade embargo but certainly gets the long-overdue ball rolling. The transfer of Guantanamo prisoners has also increased in recent weeks, meaning the once laughable notion of the prison camp being closed before the end of 2016 is now a real prospect.

Some people forget that politics is a game of compromise – as depressing as that can be to idealists – and Obama has clearly been prepared to scrap and bargain along the way. Yet he is faced with a Republican party out for blood, powerful vested business interests, the Jewish lobby, vocal expat Cubans in Florida – and pretty much everything else in between. Not many other first-world leaders have had to come up against so much in order to get even moderate reform approved.

Mitt Romney may want to have a think about legacy – and damage control – if he decides to seek his party’s nomination again. Jeb Bush too, for that matter. Obama’s road has often been rocky, sure, but at least he knows in which direction he’s headed.

Ed Stocker is Monocle’s New York bureau chief.

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