June is legacy month for President Barack Obama.
After the Supreme Court, for a second time, refused to gut the Affordable Care Act and a deal with Republicans revived his trade agenda, Obama is two-thirds of the way to three big wins that will help define his place in history.
Next up is the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran, as U.S. negotiators head to Europe to try to clinch a final agreement that would represent at striking, if partial, break with more than 30 years of visceral hostility between Washington and Tehran.
For sure, one good week does not change the prevailing dynamic of bitterness and polarization in Washington. Each of the three big legacy items is deeply contentious, has ripped new political divides and could be overturned by a future GOP president.
Republicans will run for the White House in 2016 against Obamacare, and many foreign policy watchers, including in the President’s own Democratic Party, are deeply skeptical he will secure a “good” deal with the Islamic Republic. Conservatives also remain convinced that the President has embarked on a series of unconstitutional power grabs with executive actions on the environment and immigration reform.
But a week that will end with another seminal Obama address on race at the funeral of a pastor gunned down in the Charleston massacre may have revealed fresh insight into Obama’s often elusive political character.
As he appeared at the White House following the Supreme Court’s dramatic decision on Thursday, Obama appeared to sense a circle closing and vindication for his first presidential campaign in 2008 that set out to forge transformational change.
He said Obamacare meant that people no longer had to worry about going bankrupt when they got sick, or losing health care when they swapped jobs, and was an example of the power of community when people work together.
“That’s when America soars, when we look out for one another and we take care of each other, when we root for one another’s success, when we strive to do better and to be better than the generation that came before us and try to build something better for generations to come,” Obama said.
“That’s why we do what we do. That’s the whole point of public service,” he said, gesturing to Vice President Joe Biden who was standing beside him.
It wasn’t just the Obamacare judgment that suggested the President is becoming more and more liberated from the political constraints that have made his five-and-a-half years in the White House a long and often painful slog.
A deal to secure the fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements this week was the product of a rare agreement with Republican leaders Sen. Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, who have spent years thwarting Obama’s agenda.
And there was more than a suggestion in the White House’s praise for those two foes that there is some relief in the West Wing that Obama no longer needs to appease fellow Democrats who two weeks ago dealt the President a stunning repudiation by refusing to back his trade push.
Obama just seems looser in himself as well.
His readiness to drop the ‘N-word’ into a podcast interview that touched on race that went viral this week — and the way he swatted down a heckler at the White House with the words “you’re in my house,” suggested a late-term president more willing to speak his mind, come what may, after years on a rhetorical tightrope.
For a White House that has spent years and massive reserves of political capital fighting repeated Republican attempts to kill Obamacare, Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling came as a huge relief.
There was a beaming smile on the face of Biden, still grieving after the death of his son Beau from brain cancer, as he appeared with Obama in the White House Rose Garden.
“It’s hard to rank happy days,” White House communications director Jen Psaki told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Thursday. “I would say that this is certainly one where we’re just elated for what this means for the American people.”
The Court decision means the fight over Obamacare now becomes a political one. With Obama’s veto pen at the ready, any long-shot Republican effort to overturn the law is certain to fail.
The law will now be at the center of the 2016 presidential election campaign and the GOP’s last chance to prevent it being embedded in the fabric of American life will require an all out effort to keep Hillary Clinton, or another Democrat, out of the White House.
It’s just a coincidence that the clutch of big issues are coinciding at this point in the Obama presidency — and there are still plenty of things that could go wrong. Obama admitted Thursday even in his hour of triumph that the Affordable Care Act needed to be improved, and there is no guarantee of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Still, even the pursuit of an agreement and the President’s big wins on Obamacare and trade this week are a sign of his continuing — and somewhat surprising — capacity to drive the political debate even as his second term begins to wind down.
Defying the lame duck label that was quickly applied by pundits after the Republicans added control of the Senate to their stewardship of the House of Representatives last year, Obama remains the most important Democrat in Washington.
That’s despite the increasing momentum of the 2016 campaign to replace him and historic echoes that indicate that second-term presidents often begin to ebb power quickly in the back end of their mandate.
The action packed week in politics is not over yet.
On Friday, Obama will travel to Charleston for the latest episode of an increasingly public dialogue on race, which opened with his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, re-emerged in his 2008 campaign after the controversy of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and has simmered throughout his mandate as the first black president.
His eulogy to Pastor Clementa Pinckney could mark his most personal address yet to a primarily African-American audience, which sees him as a hero but has sometimes been disappointed that he has not been more outspoken on racial issues.
And another moving of the political tectonic plates could come as soon as Friday, when the Supreme Court could hand down another opinion with huge implications — on whether states can ban same-sex marriage or must recognize such unions that are deemed legal in other states.
Obama, in common with other leading Washington politicians, has at time struggled to keep pace with a swift change in public attitudes in favor of gay rights.
But a ruling by the Court that partially or in full supports the legality of same-sex marriage will have liberals believing that hopes for fundamental social change first raised by his 2008 campaign are close to becoming reality.