US President Obama gets his groove back

Mr Obama with La Hacienda Mexican restaurant owners Lilia and Carlos Yepez in Nashville earlier this month after he spoke on his executive actions on immigration.

After the annus horribilis that is 2014, US President Barack Obama may well be looking forward to the new year, especially after witnessing a sharp reversal of fortune in the past six weeks.

Though he still ends his sixth year in office with his worst average approval ratings - his weekly average, until this week, was firmly stuck in the 40-to-45 per cent range - his popularity picked up again after he made several bold executive decisions.

The latest Gallup poll put his approval rating at 47 per cent, with the disapproval rate down slightly to 49 per cent.

This year is the only one in which his ratings never broke the 50 per cent level, but the latest figure is still the best in more than a year.

It is a sign that he is finally gaining some political momentum to carry over into the fights that await him next year.

Mr Obama's body language said as much.

The embattled, irritated, sullen President who appeared at press conferences over the past few months was nowhere to be found at his year-end conference last week.

His swagger seemed to have returned. He appeared comfortable, good-humoured and made a point by calling on only female journalists.

There was bravado as well.

For the first time in a long while, he boasted about all the things going well for the US and vowed to continue to take executive action where necessary.

"We've set the stage for this American moment and I'm going to spend every last minute of my last two years making sure that we seize it," he said.

He gave a clear hint of the sort of thinking that will drive his interactions with a Republican-controlled Congress next year: He still has veto power and is not about to be bullied.

"In order for their initiatives to become law, I'm going to have to sign off and that means they have to take into account the issues I care about, just as I'm going to take into account the issues they care about."

The turnaround has come almost entirely off the back of actions Mr Obama has taken on his own.

After his shellacking by the Republicans at the mid-term elections, it is almost as if a switch went off.

In a few short weeks, he has signed a landmark emissions deal with China, taken significant executive action on immigration reform, managed to get a comprehensive budget passed and started the process of normalising relations with Cuba.

That rapid-fire string of achievements has now given Mr Obama the sort of momentum he struggled to achieve all year.

Throughout 2014, he seemed to be lurching from crisis to crisis, whether it was Russia invading Ukraine, China towing an oil rig into disputed waters in the South China Sea, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa or the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group.

His favourability among Hispanic voters has shot up, he has fired up his liberal political base and sent Republicans scrambling for a response.

In pushing ahead with immigration reform despite a multitude of threats, he has also shown renewed political nous, gambling that the Republicans would not risk a mutually destructive government shutdown to punish him.

Add to that a compressed time frame and the fact that the GOP had yet to take over the Senate, the Republicans indeed duly passed a US$1.1 trillion (S$1.3 trillion) spending Bill with only a token symbol of their objection to his immigration action attached.

But the conservatives, too, will be looking forward to the new year because, at some point, the President is going to run out of things he can do on his own.

A host of big fights loom.

The White House needs to confirm two new key appointments - a defence chief and attorney-general - as well as continue to try and push fast-track authority to negotiate free trade deals like the stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership.

If normalising ties with Cuba is to go ahead, Mr Obama will need Republican lawmakers to support lifting the long-standing US trade embargo.

Then there are the items on the Republican agenda.

They have pledged to quickly pass legislation on the Keystone pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico to force Mr Obama's hand on the issue.

The project is seen as a environmental disaster by the left and as a major source of jobs, and energy security by the right.

Though Mr Obama has yet to say if he would veto the project, he has stressed that its economic benefits are overstated.

The immigration fight is also far from over.

When Congress passed the government budget, it left out the Department of Homeland Security, choosing to fund the department in charge of immigration only until February.

The aim was to try to get the President to roll back his executive actions again once the Republicans are in control of Congress.

There are no easy compromises but the Republicans will likely be less confident of getting their way now that they appear to be facing a reinvigorated President.

If his approval ratings continue to rise, the Republican mandate won at the mid-terms will start to seem less formidable.

Perhaps the earliest sign will come when Mr Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Jan 20.

In this year's speech, he promised a "year of action".

Come 2015, he might actually be able to deliver it.

This article was first published on December 25, 2014.
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