President Obama’s policy change on Cuba was remarkable in many ways, not least because it came as such a surprise. The administration managed to keep the negotiations secret, then made a dramatic announcement on an issue that most people in politics hadn’t given much thought to in years. The result, particularly for a lame-duck president supposedly on the ropes after his party lost the midterm elections, was striking: Everyone was suddenly talking about Obama’s action — a widely popular one, it should be noted — and Republicans were stunned.

In his last two years in office, Obama seems to be creating a new version of the bully pulpit, one that takes executive action as the starting point but depends on Republicans playing their role. And what is that role? It’s equal-parts outrage and legislative nitpicking. To wit:

Opponents of President Obama’s diplomatic opening toward Cuba began plotting for the long road ahead to block the administration’s new policy, focusing on areas where congressional consent is necessary.
The most likely targets are funding for new diplomatic operations in Havana as well as the requirement for Senate confirmation of an ambassador, and while the issue has divided Republicans, key conservatives with long anti-Castro records occupy powerful positions in Congress and could thwart Obama’s overtures toward Cuban President Raúl Castro.

In other words, Obama seized the agenda, saw his initiative dominating the front pages and television news discussions and sent Republicans in Congress scrambling to find some legislative barrier they can throw in his path. The conflict, then, ends up pitting an active, forceful president against a reactive bunch of legislators spending their time devising arcane (and mostly fruitless) procedural schemes. They might be able to do something like holding up the confirmation of an ambassador, but that won’t keep the policy change from moving forward, and it will probably make them look petty and resentful in the process.

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This could well be the template for much of the next two years. As Glenn Thrush writes, Obama is “diving headlong into what amounts to a final campaign — this one to preserve his legacy, add policy points to the scoreboard, and — last but definitely not least — to inflict the same kind of punishment on his newly empowered Republican enemies, who delighted in tormenting him when he was on top.”

Moves like the Cuba change — or his executive actions on immigration and climate change — infuriate Republicans both because of their substance and because they shut them out of the process, leaving them able to do nothing but try to find some way to thwart what the president has initiated. Congress always takes secondary status to the president in political conflicts, but when the agenda no longer revolves around legislation, they’re degraded much further. While they may be able to force some issues into the news by passing legislation, Obama can do it much easier — and unlike them, he can actually see his actions take effect. Ironically, by moving the idea of significant legislation on major issues from an unlikely prospect to a virtual impossibility, the Republican takeover of Congress may have actually enhanced the power of Obama’s bully pulpit.

I’m sure that driving Republicans crazy gives Obama some satisfaction, but the political benefits are far more significant. My guess is that hidden on someone’s laptop in the White House is a calendar of the next two years with one presidential initiative after another marked out in carefully spaced intervals, timed to keep hold of the national agenda, accomplish goals that have been either underdeveloped or ignored before now, and create howls of rage from his opponents.

If you were John Boehner or Mitch McConnell, what would you do about it? Many conservatives would insist they have to fight Obama more forcefully. But how?

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