WASHINGTON – “This,” President Barack Obama said in the Rose Garden on Wednesday as he announced the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, “is what change looks like.”
This echo of his 2008 campaign theme was self-congratulatory but deserved, coming at a time of unexpected hope late in his presidency. In the space of just over a week, Obama’s tired tenure came back to life. He bested congressional Democrats and got trade legislation on his desk. The Supreme Court upheld the signature achievement of his presidency – Obamacare – and thereby cemented his legacy.
The high court also made same-sex marriage legal across the land following a tidal change in public opinion that Obama’s own conversion accelerated. Had the court’s decisions not dominated the nation’s attention, Obama’s eulogy Friday for those slain in a South Carolina church, and his extraordinary rendition of “Amazing Grace,” would have itself been one of the most powerful moments of his presidency.
It is little surprise, then, that this lame duck’s job approval rating hit a respectable 50 percent this week for the first time in two years in a CNN poll, and his disapproval rating dropped to 47.
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The good tidings of the past week have been arguably more luck than achievement for Obama, but he deserves credit for his effort to use the momentum of his victories to revive what had been a moribund presidency. When you earn political capital, as George W. Bush liked to say, you spend it. This is why it was shrewd of the surging Obama to demand new action from Congress on Cuba.
“Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward; I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same,” he said, renewing his call to lift the travel and trade embargo. “…Yes, there are those who want to turn back the clock and double down on a policy of isolation, but it’s long past time for us to realize that this approach doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for 50 years. … So I’d ask Congress to listen to the Cuban people, listen to the American people, listen to the words of a proud Cuban American, 1 / 8former Bush commerce secretary 3 / 8 Carlos Gutierrez, who recently came out against the policy of the past.”
Fifteen minutes later, Obama lifted off from the South Lawn in Marine One on his way to Nashville, where he tried to use the momentum generated by the Supreme Court Obamacare victory to spread the program to states where Republican governors have resisted.
“What I’m hoping is that with the Supreme Court case now behind us, what we can do is … now focus on how we can make it even better,” he said, adding, “My hope is that on a bipartisan basis, in places like Tennessee but all across the country, we can now focus on … what have we learned? What’s working? What’s not working?”
He said that “because of politics, not all states have taken advantage of the options that are out there. Our hope is, is that more of them do.” He urged people to “think about this in a practical American way instead of a partisan, political way.”
This probably won’t happen, but it’s refreshing to see Obama, too often passive, regaining vigor as he approaches the final 18 months of his presidency. The energy had, at least for the moment, returned to the White House, where no fewer than six network correspondents were doing live stand-ups before Obama’s appearance Wednesday morning. There was a spring in the president’s step, if not a swagger, as he emerged from the Oval Office trailed by Vice President Biden.
Republican presidential candidates were nearly unanimous in denouncing the plan to open a U.S. embassy in Havana. But Obama, squinting in the sunlight as he read from his teleprompters, welcomed the fight.
“The progress that we mark today is yet another demonstration that we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” he said. Quoting a Cuban-American’s view that “you can’t hold the future of Cuba hostage to what happened in the past,” Obama added, “That’s what this is about: a choice between the future and the past.”
Obama turned to go back inside, ignoring the question shouted by Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev: “How will you get an ambassador confirmed?”
That will indeed be tricky. But momentum is everything in politics – and for the moment, Obama has it again.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.