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Opinion How Obama’s active second term is shaping the 2016 presidential race

“President Obama is the anti-lame duck,” Kevin Drum writes today.

By way of illustration, Drum compiles a list of all of the actions Obama has taken since Dems got washed out in the 2014 midterms, in order to demonstrate how active his presidency has been thus far in his second term:

1. Normalized relations with Cuba.
2. Signed a climate deal with China.
3. Issued new EPA ozone rules.
4. Successfully argued in favor of same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court.
5. Put in place economic sanctions on Russia that have Vladimir Putin reeling.
6. Pressured the FCC to approve net neutrality rules.
7. Issued new EPA coal regulations.
8. Issued an executive order on immigration.
9. Got fast track authority for TPP and seems poised to pass it.
10. Signed a nuclear deal with Iran and appears on track to get it passed.
11. Won yet another Supreme Court case keeping Obamacare intact.
12. Issued new rules that increase the number of “managers” who qualify for overtime pay.
13. Presided over the birth of twin giant panda babies at Washington, D.C.’s, National Zoo.

What’s particularly striking is how many of these major moves have been embraced by likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and have been opposed by the 2016 GOP presidential candidates — and will thus form the basis for the broad contrasts that will drive next year’s presidential race. (I’ve taken the liberty of bolding the initiatives above that fall into this category.)

The long term prospects of many of these Obama initiatives will depend on whether the next president will build on them or instead will try to roll them back. Clinton has endorsed efforts to normalize relations with Cuba and has come out in support of the nuclear deal with Iran; the 2016 GOP candidates have pledged to undo both immediately upon taking office. Clinton has pledged to protect Obama’s new EPA rules limiting carbon emissions and other actions he’s taken on climate; Republicans have vowed to fight them.

That last one feeds into another major accomplishment that Obama may still rack up that is not on the above list: the achievement of a global climate deal later this year in Paris, in which major economies all pledge to reduce their carbon emissions. Clinton will propose doing what it takes for us to keep our end of the bargain; the 2016 GOP candidates — who already oppose the new EPA rules that will be key to whether we succeed in doing that — are likely to vow to withdraw U.S. participation in it.

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Meanwhile, Clinton has vowed to build on Obamacare’s coverage expansion; the 2016 GOP candidates are all vowing to repeal it, and those who are purporting to offer their own plans would, at a minimum, roll that coverage achievement back. Clinton endorsed Obama’s executive actions shielding millions from deportation; the 2016 GOP candidates have pledged to reverse them. By the way, the battle over those actions could be headed to the Supreme Court next year, right when the presidential race is in full swing.

And finally, all the 2016 GOP candidates have pledged to ship those baby pandas back to China on Day One, too. (Okay, I made that last one up. But no one has yet asked Donald Trump to detail his plans for them and thus dictate the agenda for the rest of the GOP field, so who knows.)

All of this has created an interesting tension that’s worth keeping an eye on. Multiple polls have shown (today’s Quinnipiac poll is only the latest) that Americans want the next president to take a different direction from that of Obama. Republicans have decided that painting Clinton as a third term of Obama is a sure winner for them. But those polls tend to ask the question about the direction of the next presidency in broad, generic terms, and Clinton’s campaign has plainly calculated that embracing all these initiatives will ultimately form the basis of a broad contrast that will politically favor her.

That’s partly because Clinton is reconstituting the Obama coalition of millennials, minorities, and socially liberal, college educated whites, who are more likely to support (and care about) action to combat climate change, immigration reform, relaxing relations with Cuba, active government to expand health coverage, and so forth. It’s also partly because the Clinton camp genuinely sees these issue contrasts as useful to the broader mission of painting the GOP as trapped in the past. It’s possible the Clinton team thinks it can pull off a balancing act in which she signals she’d take the presidency in her own direction while vowing to make progress on Obama’s major initiatives and excoriating Republicans for wanting to re-litigate them and roll them back.

We’ll find out whose reading is the right one soon enough. For now, most observers can probably agree that Obama’s second term is proving far more active — and having far more of an impact in shaping the battle to succeed him — than we might have expected.