After word reached the White House staff who had gathered for a drink in the hotel bar one night last week that President Obama was working out an aggressive climate deal with the Chinese president, the first toast was to the planet.
The second was to the message they believed they were about to broadcast back home: that Obama can still check big things off his to-do list.
“We’re not just amblin’ off here,” said one senior advisor traveling with the president on a weeklong tour of Asia and Australia that began with the surprising commitment with China to cut carbon pollution.
The tour began as a relaunch of sorts — closing the books on a fall campaign season largely free of any real initiatives and highlighting Obama’s agenda for his final two years in office.
The ambition might prove delusional. Weakened as the president is by the bruising he and his Democratic Party took in the midterm elections, there are serious questions about whether he can achieve anything with the GOP in control of Congress. Awaiting Obama in Washington are Republican leaders already preparing to curb his ambitions on climate, immigration and other issues the president has said he’ll act on without lawmakers.
“Congress is going to stand up to the president, and the American people expect them to do that,” Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
For his part, Obama said Sunday in a news conference here that he will “build on the momentum” of the last week when he returns to the White House.
“He seems determined to take signature issues on the legacy he wants to leave and use his executive authority as effectively as he can” to act on them, said Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former Asia director in President Clinton’s National Security Council. “That’s going to get a lot of yelling and screaming from the other side of the aisle.”
The clamor began right away. Congressional Republicans vented over the weekend about the president’s deal with China and promise to reform immigration by executive fiat.
“This president, right now, is choosing friction, partisanship and accomplishment … instead of cooperation,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said on “Fox News Sunday.” “There’s an opportunity for us to get some things done here, and instead, the president is going down this unilateral path.”
Over the last few months, Obama kept a mostly low profile on the campaign trail and put off several major projects, most notably his plan to change U.S. immigration policy, until after elections, to help Democrats in the midterms. He was left to react to world events, like the violent insurgency of the Islamic State terrorist group and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
During that time, aides to the president say, he and his staff prepared several major proposals for after the elections.
They envisioned the trip to Asia and Australia as the beginning of the unveiling in hopes they would be more effective than they were during the 2010 postelection tour of the same region, accounts of which focus mainly on the fact that Obama failed to lock down a Korea free trade agreement.
Last summer, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told senior staffers that he wanted another post-midterm foreign trip, this time to make a much stronger statement about Obama’s priorities.
He wanted the team to put the full-court press on several big projects and see whether they could time any of them for the November tour.
With an eye on fall regulatory deadlines, the White House prepared an announcement that Obama would back rules forcing broadband providers to treat all Internet data the same, regardless of whether it comes from massive media groups or small start-ups.
The move was a sign that Obama plans a public fight with Republicans over the future of the Internet.
In an allusion to the immigration fight to come, Obama reached a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping to extend the length of current visas for businesspeople, students and tourists.
The trip was not an uninterrupted success. In Myanmar, whose growing openness Obama likes to claim credit for, he spent his time urging leaders to make next year’s elections free and to reform a constitution that protects military leadership of the government.
Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi lectured him, albeit gently, not to get snookered by the baby-step reforms of the Myanmar generals.
But the climate deal was a success of the type the White House had sought.
Speaking to reporters Sunday, Obama said he shaped the target based on his executive powers as they have been “upheld repeatedly by this Supreme Court.”
The test of Obama’s agenda isn’t what happens on a single trip, said Ely Ratner, a scholar at the Center for a New American Security.
“What matters,” he said, “is whether he carries this momentum back to Washington.”
Otherwise, the climate deal could prove to be no more lasting than China’s temporary cleanup of the atmosphere in Beijing in preparation for Obama’s trip.
After clear skies earlier while Obama and other world leaders were in town, the smog was back to its usual choking levels Sunday.