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But that doesn't mean there won't be changes, or that they won't be positive changes. It is true without argument that his political career is over - he has four years to govern and build a legacy, and then he will move into the special "Elder Statesman" role we reserve for our former Presidents. But all the rancor and over-the-top rhetoric of the two campaigns and first four years cannot be called back, and it would be unreasonable to believe that the President wouldn't consider who supported him and who obstructed him, who made political arguments and who chose vile personal attacks.
With the Republican majority still solid in the House of Representatives, and the minority in the Senate still equipped with a substantial toolkit for obstruction and delay, there will be no legislative agenda this term. No bills of any consequence will come to his desk for signature, and the battles over upcoming Supreme Court Justice appointments will be epic, and exceedingly ugly. But this is where the lack of political constraints will help him. He can act with a free hand in the executive branch, using his regulatory agencies to drive change or to force legislative concessions. And it might be in the realm of foreign policy where we will see a President free to take actions that history will remember.
One key area of domestic policy that will see consequences from its political positions is the Financial Industry. President Obama has been very friendly to their interests, to the point of shielding them from prosecution and using taxpayer funds to prop up their failing institutions. And yet they reviled him, committing massive funds to his opponent and calling him everything from Stupid to Socialist. This was a bet they lost twice, with the election of Barack Obama to a second term in the White House and of Elizabeth Warren to the Senate. Now don't get me wrong, I don't expect to see a lot of major prosecutions in the Banking and Finance sectors (although Holder's DoJ appears to be poised to launch some, and even that's better than nothing), but I DO expect to see the gloves come off on regulatory policy and capital requirements, and even tougher rules around international currency flows and derivative trading. President Obama doesn't need them any more, and he certainly owes them nothing at this point.
This new-found political freedom will also allow the President to work more effectively during the next debt-ceiling hostage crisis. The open question in these kinds of fights is whether voters will hold the President or Congress accountable for a government shutdown, and this time the political risk is clearly higher for the legislators. Plus, if the president decided to take a more aggressive approach like ignoring the debt ceiling altogether or, my preferred approach, simply ordering the Treasury to mint a couple Trillion dollar platinum coins to use to keep the government functioning, he would certainly have more flexibility to do so.
But some of the real opportunities for historic change are in the realm of foreign policy. There is no longer any doubt that America's relationship with Israel is dangerous and actually damaging to American interests. As Israel behaves in an increasingly belligerent and thug-like manner in her neighborhood, the unwavering support of the United States for even brutal criminal acts destroys American credibility and damages our ability to demand better behavior from other regional bullies. But worst of all, the situation as it currently exists allows the Israeli political leadership to control America's actions in the region as if they were the superpower and we were the client state. Indeed, the most critical decision any government can make, the decision whether and when to go to war, is no longer America's to make. It rests with the Likud government and Bibi Netanyahu, who has tormented Obama for years and actively supported Mitt Romney in the American election. If Obama wants to address these issues and bring pressure to bear on the Israeli government to halt the settlements and work actively for a two-state solution it would raise a tremendous outcry in Congress, but would have little in the way of direct political costs. And by breaking the logjam brought about by Israeli impunity, it might just create a historic opportunity for real progress on Palestine.
For that matter, Obama could do a deal directly with the Iranian leadership, short-circuiting the march to a war that would wreck the global economy, lifting sanctions that are hurting the Iranian population and starting down the path to normal, peaceful relations with the Islamic Republic. He's not really in the box he is often thought to be in, because he has only said that America would not tolerate a nuclear armed Iran. Since Iran does not have nuclear weapons, and is not directly working on developing them, there is no contradiction in this approach.
In short, Obama is facing four years of divided government and an increasingly virulent and obstructionist opposition. All his real legislative victories are likely behind him, so in order to cement the kind of legacy he certainly wants for himself and his administration, he's going to have to find a way to take some fairly bold steps outside of Capitol Hill. But the fact that the United States Constitution includes the 22nd Amendment offers him the freedom to try to achieve some important things in his second term. I certainly hope he takes that opportunity.