'Political rock star' once more, Obama turns tables on Republicans

President Obama's trip to California this weekend shows how dramatically he's flipped the script on Republicans since his party's devastating loss in the November midterms.

Jeff Chiu/AP
President Obama signs an executive order to encourage and promote sharing of cybersecurity threat information within the private sector and between the private sector and government, Friday in Stanford, Calif.

The last time we remember President Obama making news in California, he was being heckled.

It was October 2013, and Mr. Obama was two weeks away from the lowest approval rating of his entire presidency, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. He was in San Francisco, perhaps the bluest city of the bluest state, delivering a speech about immigration reform, and what he got was an earful.

In addition to chants of "Stop deportations! Yes we can!" he was verbally Punk'd by one young man who told him flatly, "You have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country."

On that day, Obama's answer was: "Actually, I don't."

That Obama seems like a distant memory now.

The president returned to California this weekend ostensibly for a cybersecurity summit in Silicon Valley, but it has instead felt like a victory lap for the midterm election's biggest loser.

The San Francisco Chronicle began its coverage of Obama's trip with the observation: "Remember Barack Obama, political rock star? He's back."

It is a curious twist that involves Obama somehow completely turning the tables on Republicans during what was supposed to be their finest hour. He's delivered a fiery State of the Union address. He's headed off changes to Obamacare and approval of the Keystone pipeline with veto threats. And he's used his executive power to stunning effect, cutting a climate change deal with China and putting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off limits to oil exploration. 

And, oh yes, he expanded his plan to defer deportation by nearly 5 million illegal immigrants.

That's not stopping deportation for all undocumented immigrants in the United States, perhaps. But it's a major chunk – close to half.

Indeed, if anything could be said of Obama since his party's stunning defeat in November, it is that he has become a one-man tea party, pursuing his own agenda basically without reference to anybody else.

Thus the irony that just as Republicans in Congress have started to play nice, build consensus, and actually govern, Obama has spun through Washington like a political hurricane.

Perhaps it's a case of: If you can't beat them, copy them.

There will be no more major elections during the Obama presidency and he's facing a Republican-led Congress, so there's not much to lose. And clearly, the liberal base that once provided the electricity for Obama's megawatt stardom is buzzing once again.

Last fall, the news was about voters leaving an Obama campaign rally early. Now, its about Stanford coeds camping out overnight to see Obama speak. And, OMG, they were in the second row!

The Chronicle interviewed a Democratic strategist who observed: "A lot of people are saying to me, 'Who is this guy – and where’s he been for the last six years?' "

Just Google the words "Obama" and "mojo," and a who's who of liberal media outlets pops up, from MSNBC to the Daily Kos. Lest there be any doubts, all say he's got it back. 

Indeed, Obama's approval rating has improved by 6.6 points since Nov. 4.

Obama's political endgame is not yet clear. Does he have enough executive actions in his quiver to keep doing this through the end of 2016? Or will he pivot to building out the actions that that he's taken so they become facts on the ground that subsequent presidents will find hard to change?

More broadly, does he even care about bipartisanship?

Or, perhaps more to the point, why should he?

Obama might only be interested in bipartisan legislation if it's overwhelming – not just a trickle of a few red state Democrats pushing Republicans over the filibuster finish line, Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, has suggested to the Monitor

What on the congressional docket fits that description? Maybe tax reform. Maybe a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. But possibly nothing at all.

For Obama, the power of one (himself) might be the most he thinks he can realistically muster.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.