For years, progressives have sharply criticized President Obama for shaping major decisions around the idea that scaling back his ambitions would ultimately secure the GOP cooperation he had long sought. But the GOP takeover of Congress has effectively freed Obama from that illusion, leaving him little choice other than to be as aggressive and ambitious as possible in unilaterally pursuing his agenda wherever he can.

This is now setting in motion a series of arguments that will shape the next race for the presidency.

In a very good piece, the New York Times’ Michael Shear reports that Obama’s decision to pursue normalized relations with Cuba is only the latest in a pattern that may characterize his last two years in office:

The announcement…follows similar decisions by Mr. Obama in recent weeks to defy Republicans on immigration, climate change policy, the regulation of the Internet and negotiations with Iran…

Mr. Obama’s unilateral action on Cuba is part of a pattern that will define the end of his presidency. Frustrated by congressional inaction and Republican efforts to block legislation, the president has increasingly pushed the limits of his executive authority in domestic and international policy making — an approach that anticipates, and largely dismisses, angry responses from his critics…

Mr. Obama is returning to the original case he made as a presidential candidate, casting himself as a transformational leader who is eager to discard old conventions of politics and policy in ways that appeal to the sensibilities of younger people. Although the midterm elections last month were a victory for Republicans, who took control of the Senate and added to their House majority, the results seem to have only accelerated the president’s use of regulatory, diplomatic and executive authority.

Republicans like to say all of this unilateral action defies the will of the people as expressed in the last election. If that is so, then Republicans will surely be glad to hear that much of what Obama is setting in motion may be litigated in another electoral contest — the 2016 presidential race.

When you step back and look at the degree to which these actions are beginning to frame that contest, it’s striking. Hillary Clinton has now endorsed Obama’s move on Cuba. GOP presidential hopefuls are lining up against it. She has vowed to protect Obama’s actions on climate “at all costs,” a stance that could take on added significance if a global climate treaty is negotiated next year. Potential GOP presidential candidates will likely vow to undo those actions and line up against U.S. participation in such a treaty.

Clinton has come out in support of Obama’s action to shield millions from deportation. GOP presidential hopefuls have lined up against it, effectively reaffirming the party’s commitment to deporting as many low-level offenders and longtime residents as possible. And so on.

As Shear’s piece notes, all these actions appear geared to “the sensibilities of younger people.” But it goes beyond this. They are geared to the priorities of many of the voter groups that are increasingly key to Democratic victories in national elections: millennials, nonwhite voters, and college educated whites, especially women. The Cuba shift may appeal to young voters, particularly younger Cubans in the key swing state of Florida. The move on deportations could sharpen the contrast between the parties in ways that enhance the Democratic advantage among Latinos. The moves on climate could appeal to millennials and socially liberal upscale whites.

The common thread uniting all of these is a Democratic gamble that such groups will be swayed by an agenda that is forward-looking and more accepting of evolving demographic, international and scientific realities, and will see the GOP as increasingly trapped in the past.

One big unknown is whether the next Democratic nominee can get out the Obama coalition in the numbers he did. But it increasingly looks like a good deal more of the Obama agenda than expected — in the form of all these unilateral actions — may be on the ballot in 2016 to motivate these voter groups. Republicans delighted in arguing that Obama’s policies were soundly rejected in the last election. But we’re now playing on a presidential year field, and Obama’s new approach appears to be only getting started.

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* LEFTY GROUPS GEAR UP TO FIGHT TREASURY NOMINEE: Signaling that this fight will escalate, CREDO Action is launching a petition pressuring Obama to drop the nomination of investment banker Antonio Weiss to a top Treasury Department post, lending support to Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has turned Weiss into a symbol of government coziness with Wall Street:

At stake is everything from economic policy-making to the implementation of Wall Street reforms. As Deputy Undersecretary for Domestic Finance, Weiss would oversee the implementation of the 2009 Dodd-Frank Act…Financial reform and consumer protection are too important to fill the job with someone who has spent his life working on behalf of Wall Street banks and big corporations.

This, plus a planned Progressive Change Campaign Committee rally in New York today, signal that this will become a key fault line between the Warren wing of the party and its more Wall Street friendly factions. At stake is whether Wall Street reform gets slowly whittled away in coming months.

* HILLARY BACKS OBAMA ON CUBA: Hillary Clinton issued a statement last night backing up Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba and push Congress to lift the embargo. From the statement:

I support Obama’s decision to change course on Cuba policy, while keeping the focus on our principal objective — supporting the aspirations of the Cuban people for freedom….our decades-long policy of isolation has only strengthened the Castro regime’s grip on power…the best way to bring change to Cuba is to expose its people to the values, information, and material comforts of the outside world.  The goal of increased U.S. engagement in the days and years ahead should be to encourage real and lasting reforms for the Cuban people.

As noted yesterday, the Cuba shift is another way in which Obama’s unilateral actions — which include moves on climate and deportations — are reshaping the coming battle between Clinton and GOP presidential hopefuls, who are condemning the Cuba move.

* REPUBLICANS SCHEME ON BLOCKING CUBA MOVE: Congressional Republicans are already cooking up plans to block the aspects of normalization with Cuba that Obama can undertake unilaterally:

On the list: deny Obama funds to reopen an embassy in Havana, stall the nomination of a potential ambassador, vote down a bill to open up travel more widely and ignore requests from the White House to lift a decades-old embargo…the dispute will provide another opportunity for the president’s Hill rivals, including 2016 likely hopefuls Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, to continue to question his use of executive action — a theme Republicans had already planned to take on next year around Obama’s moves on immigration and Obamacare.

Good thing GOP leaders agreed to fund the government for most of the year, or we might be looking at a government shutdown fight over Cold War policy, too.

* A BIG GAMBLE ON CHANGING POLITICS OF CUBA: Karen Tumulty and Anne Gearan have a good analysis of how Obama’s Cuba shift represents a bet that the politics of this issue, in Florida and beyond, have moved passed the trapped-in-the-past stance of the many Republicans condemning the move:

The bulk of the GOP comments suggested that, for now at least, the conservative base remains firmly committed to keeping relations with Cuba in the deep-freeze where they have been for half a century. That position, however, is increasingly at odds with the view of the electorate at large.

What’s more, the new announcement probably won’t provoke a fatal backlash for Dems even in Florida.

* MITT ROMNEY CONDEMNS CUBA MOVE: The Mittster weighs in:

More “we give, they get” diplomacy from Obama; this time the Castros win, and the champions of freedom and democracy lose.

Let’s hope Romney runs again to set things right.

* ‘THE COLD WAR DIED WEDNESDAY': Don’t miss Manuel Roig-Franzia’s dive into the deeper historical meaning of Obama’s Cuba announcement, and what it means for the popular culture, for a policy that spanned 11 presidencies, and for the Cold War relics who still populate the U.S. Congress. Also see the New York Times’ explanation of what normalizing relations can actually accomplish in human rights terms.

 * WHAT SHOULD DEMS STAND FOR ON ECONOMY? Chuck Schumer has been criticized for claiming Dems erred in passing Obamacare. But in an interview with E.J. Dionne, he says he would do the ACA again in a minute and that he was merely articulating a broader economic agenda:

Schumer’s list was progressive. It included a bigger and more focused economic stimulus; a minimum-wage increase; the Employee Free Choice Act, to ease unionization and strengthen workers’ bargaining power; and the Equal Pay Act, to end wage disparities between men and women…Restoring broadly shared prosperity is not just a good political issue. It’s the cause on which every other cause depends.

Serious differences remain among Democrats over whether to expand social insurance, on breaking up the big banks, and on trade policy. But Schumer’s list reminds us there is a lot of overlap among Dems on economic policy.