US president Barack Obama's decision to radically shift US policy toward Cuba is the latest and most striking example of a president unleashed from the hesitancy that characterised much of his first six years in office.
The announcement, made in a speech to the nation from the cabinet room of the White House, follows similar decisions by the president in recent weeks to defy Republicans on immigration, climate change policy, the regulation of the internet and negotiations with Iran.
Gone are the cautious political calculations that consigned contentious issues to secondary status and led some of the president’s strongest allies to accuse him of abandoning his principles. Obama is now pushing forward aggressively on his promised agenda and ignoring his most ardent critics.
"He's going down a checklist of thorny, long-standing problems, and he's doing whatever he can to tackle them," says David Axelrod, a former senior adviser. "These are things that have been tearing at us for decades and generations. My sense is his feeling is, 'I'm not going to leave office without doing everything I can to stop them.'"
As a candidate in 2008, Obama was scorned by his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona, for his pledge to meet Raúl Castro, the president of Cuba, “at a time and place of my choosing”. Obama said then that if Cuba took steps toward democracy and released all political prisoners, “we will take steps to begin normalising relations”.
But for six years, Obama made little progress on an issue fraught with political passions and uncertainty, especially in Florida, an important swing state. The only evidence of a change included a brief handshake with Castro at Nelson Mandela's funeral in South Africa last year and some minor revisions to the embargo against Cuba, easing travel restrictions and allowing Cuban-Americans to send more money home. The president's lack of action angered activists who believed he would follow through on his campaign promises. Democratic senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona collaborated on an op-ed article for the Miami Herald earlier this year that urged the president to change policy on Cuba and "heed the majority of those across the country who recognise that we have much to gain by jettisoning this cold war relic".
On Wednesday, Obama finally made good on his pledge. “When I came into office, I promised to re-examine our Cuba policy,’’ the president said. “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.’’
Obama’s unilateral action on Cuba is part of a pattern that will define the end of his presidency. Frustrated by congressional inaction and Republican efforts to block legislation, the president has increasingly pushed the limits of his executive authority in domestic and international policymaking – an approach that anticipates, and largely dismisses, angry responses from his critics.
On Wednesday, those critics were out in force: Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who is a likely candidate for president in 2016, denounced the president's move as "disgraceful" and "just another concession to a tyranny". Rubio and other Republicans threatened to withhold funding for a new US embassy in Havana just as they had earlier threatened to undermine the president's immigration actions by trying to block federal money that might be needed to carry out the new policies.
Some Cuban-Americans in the president's party were equally angry. Democratic senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey said Obama had "vindicated the brutal behaviour of the Cuban government". Menendez, however, will become a less important White House ally once Republicans take control of the Senate next month and he loses his position as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee.
In the meantime, Obama is returning to the original case he made as a presidential candidate, casting himself as a transformational leader who is eager to discard old conventions of politics and policy in ways that appeal to the sensibilities of younger people. Although the midterm elections last month were a victory for Republicans, who took control of the Senate and added to their House majority, the results seem to have only accelerated the president’s use of regulatory, diplomatic and executive authority.
Last month, he made a unilateral move on immigration, taking actions that will allow as many as five million unauthorised residents to work in the country legally without the threat of deportation. He had promised to do this as far back as 2007, during his first presidential campaign, vowing that if he were elected the issue would be “a priority I will pursue from my very first day”.
The president has also stepped up his actions to combat climate change after failing to win congressional support for cap-and-trade legislation early in his presidency. This year, he negotiated a climate agreement with
, and he is pushing ahead with tough new regulations on coal-fired power plants.
Last month, he strongly endorsed equal treatment of websites by internet service providers, angering some Republicans who oppose efforts to regulate providers as if they were public utilities. The president’s decision to negotiate with Iran in recent years over its nuclear abilities – against the strong objections of some conservatives – followed through on one of his most contentious promises during the 2008 presidential campaign.
By framing his moves in generational terms, the president is also seeking to make an implicit case that Republicans who oppose them are dinosaurs fighting yesterday’s battles. Those close to Obama say he was always ready to fight those battles, but the realities of the presidency got in the way. “When we got there, we had an epic economic crisis and two wars to deal with,” Axelrod says. “It wasn’t as if he had the bandwidth or free rein to pursue every one of the issues he felt were important.”
Now, he says, the president will not be stopped. "Either you buy into this tangled pathology of Washington and allow yourself to get manoeuvred into inaction or you resolve that you're going to use the authority that you have," Axelrod says. "He's plainly going to use that." – (New York Times)