WASHINGTON – (AA) President Barack Obama’s legacy is very much still in dispute as he prepares to round out his final two years in office.
Thomas Carothers, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that the president’s successes at home and abroad are likely to galvanize supporters and opponents who will craft divergent narratives about what Obama leaves behind in 2016.
“His legacy is going to be bitterly contested in partisan terms,” Carothers said. “There will be a narrative of, on the one hand, supporters saying he brought a sense of proportion, realism, and an emphasis on diplomacy to American policy, and opponents saying that he brought a lack of recognition of realities of power, and a tendency towards compromise and retreat.”
From Cuba to Iran, Obama’s foreign policy agenda is fraught with uncertainty, in part because it remains unclear if he will be able to muster the congressional support necessary to ensure that what have so far been shaky successes for the American president are finalized.
By its likely resistance to lift travel restrictions for Americans going to Cuba, and potential refusals to remove the embargo on the island nation – a key demand from Havana – and formally name an ambassador, Congress could stymy, in part, the Obama administration’s efforts to normalize relations with Havana.
“Congress is able to keep the policy in the past to some extent,” Carothers said.
Weighing on lawmakers will be the benefits that the U.S. has reaped in Latin America where a diplomatic opening with a longtime foe has eased relations for Washington throughout the region, as well as the potential economic advantages of doing business in an economic no-go zone.
But the resistance the administration faces on Cuba is nothing compared to the intransigence that lawmakers are posing to the Iran deal.
As one leading Senator told Secretary of State John Kerry last week, “In the process of being fleeced, what you’ve really done here is you have turned Iran from being a pariah to now Congress being a pariah.”
Kerry retorted last Friday saying that if Congress votes to reject the deal “we go right back to square one”.
He further argued that Israel, one of the main drivers of opposition to the nuclear agreement within Congress, “could actually wind up being more isolated and more blamed.”
If Obama is able to ensure that Congress does not upend the newly realized agreement he will have established a diplomatic victory on par with former President Richard Nixon’s opening with China, a landmark achievement for American foreign relations, according to Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University.
“If it works, I think that the Iranian nuclear agreement will be a major legacy, and I think that’s partly why a lot of Republicans are opposed to it. It has nothing to do with the actual terms of the agreement, it’s simply that they don’t want Obama to have anything like this,” he said.
Perhaps no other shift more clearly defines the president’s two terms than his relations with Congress.
Throughout the first two years of his presidency, Obama sought cooperation from the Democratic-controlled legislature, but after Republicans gained control of the House in 2010, and then the Senate in 2014, the president gradually shifted to take initiatives independent of Congress, largely though executive action and his powers as commander-in-chief.
Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University professor, said Obama came into office in 2009 “fundamentally believing” in his ability to cross the aisle, but as time wore on he was confronted with partisan realities, forcing him to prioritize issues that he felt were important, and vital to U.S. interests
“Fundamentally I think it’s really about his own sense of what’s important for the country at home and abroad,” the former State Department policy adviser said.
Ultimately, Jentleston said, Obama’s foreign policy legacy will be one of “preparing the United States for the strategic challenges of the 21st century that are different from the Cold War or the immediate euphoria of the post-Cold War. A lot of these issues fit into that.”
“That’s what Iran represents, and Cuba represents,” he said.
At home, Obama continues to pursue a number of policy objectives that the Republican-controlled Congress has stood in fierce opposition to, including the hallmark Affordable Care Act that has so far survived despite successive challenges by lawmakers.
“Just as with the introduction of Medicare in the 1960s there is a tremendous resentment on the part of a certain segment of the population,” said Katz. “For a lot of conservatives this is just too much.”
But that reform has not gone down well with Republicans, who continue to rally opposition to it ahead of the 2016 race for the White House – though it’s unclear if a Republican would annul a law that has insured millions of Americans.
Beyond the controversial health care initiative, Obama has made significant inroads on the economy where domestic unemployment has fallen sharply from nearly 10 percent during his first year in office to near pre-recession levels, currently at 5.5 percent.
In an interview with the BBC, Obama said a lack of progress from lawmakers on new gun laws is his “biggest frustration.”
“The one area where I feel that I’ve been most frustrated, and most stymied, it is the fact that the United States of America is the one advanced nation on earth in which we do not have sufficient, common sense gun safety laws,” the American president said in an interview aired just hours before a gunman killed two people at a movie theater in Louisiana, before turning the gun on himself.
But with roughly a year and a half left in his term, and with Republicans in control of both legislative chambers, this issue, perhaps more than any other domestic hurdle, may prove to be insurmountable for a president that has made friends of long-time foes, and halved the number of Americans without a job.
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