Here's a little blast from the recent past, a meeting of the minds between Bill O'Reilly and Brit Hume in October 2013:
O'Reilly asked Hume, "Is he just not interested? Is he bored with it? Is it deniability?"
Hume said that unlike some past presidents, Obama is "not a micromanager" and prefers to rely on others. O'Reilly charged that right now, Obama's performance is so bad, he's in "major trouble on the history front" and has to be "in the bottom ten" in a ranking of all the U.S. presidents.
This was a major theme in conservative and not-so-conservative media for quite some time: Obama is passive, he's bored, he just doesn't care anymore, he's like a senior two weeks from graduation who just can't wait to get it over with. Here's a piece from June by Ron Fournier passing on complaints about Obama from anonymous Democrats, including "his disengagement from the political process and from the public." "He's bored and tired of being president," Fournier cites one as saying. Not long after, Fox News actually took a poll asking people, "Do you think Barack Obama wants to be president anymore?"
I suppose that six months ago Obama might have been bored with some parts of his job. One certainly couldn't blame him for being bored with the process of trying to get something out of Congress. But I always thought the charge was absurd. People do all kinds of armchair psychologizing of the president based on the occasional snippets they see of him in public, combined with the opinions they hear from other people who, like them, have no access to the actual person. I'm not saying I haven't been guilty of that from time to time, but you have to be careful about imputing attributes and psychological states to him just based on whether you approve of the things he's done or hasn't done lately. And that's what it usually comes down to.
But with today's announcement that we'll be undertaking a normalization of relations with Cuba—a mere 54 years after the embargo began—combined with other recent moves on immigration and climate change, Obama is looking pretty engaged. The approaching end of his term and the loss of both houses of Congress seem to have liberated him. While the Cuba deal was apparently in the works for many months, it wasn't something in the headlines like immigration. Who knows how many other surprises Obama may have in store.
And while it's true that there are limits to things the president can do just with executive action, this could be a new model for a way to use the bully pulpit. Obama can't actually end the embargo entirely—that would require an act of Congress. But by taking some concrete action where he can, he's forced the issue onto the agenda. I'd be surprised if there wasn't a move in Congress to finally bring the embargo to an end. For some time, there have been Democrats and Republicans who favored it; because of what Obama has done, they might have the opportunity to move that legislation forward. He could try to create the same kind of evolution in other areas.
In any case, the man certainly looks like he's been set free. He doesn't have to worry about getting reelected or about losing Congress (done both), so he can go back to see what fell off the to-do list and do things that he's always wanted to, whether they were politically risky or not. This might be an interesting two years after all.