This post was originally posted in November. It's been updated ahead of Obama's final State of the Union address on Tuesday.
For President Obama, it's legacy time.
With less than a year before his successor is elected and he officially becomes a lame-duck president, time is running short. Obama has moved the ball forward on a number of legacy items already this year. Some have solidified; others remain in limbo.
His 2010 health-care reform law will already be mentioned at the top of the 44th president's Wikipedia page. But the Obama White House is moving quickly on several issues that could be listed in the first few paragraphs, too.
"You do get a sense they are aware of the legacy, and there is a kind of a presidential scorecard being filled out," says Gil Troy, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Obama's ambitions are high. They start with one last shot at the seemingly impossible task of closing the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and cover everything from following through on an international climate change deal to finalizing one of the world's largest free-trade agreements in a generation.
It's notable that most of Obama's goals are overseas-oriented; that's because a Republican-controlled Congress has less authority to intervene. But that doesn't mean crossing things off his final to-do list is going to be easy. The scope of what he wants to do means that finishing it will take a lot of late nights for Obama and his staff in their final year, said Jacob Stokes, an associate fellow at the bipartisan Center for a New American Security.
But if the stars align for the president — as they seem to have done this summer — Stokes thinks Obama can accomplish most of his goals. "The president and the administration have a relatively large amount of agency to get these things done," he said. "If they really focus on it."
Here are seven things on Obama's final to-do list.
Shuttering Guantanamo is less of a legacy issue and more of a moral one for the president, Stokes said. Since the first days of his presidency, Obama has maintained that the prison, where detainees can be held indefinitely, is a propaganda tool for terrorists. But congressional Republicans say closing it will create more risk than it's worth, and they — and the realities of what to do with existing prisoners there — have successfully blocked the president for six years from doing anything about it.
The clock's ticking for Obama to fulfill one of his oldest campaign promises.
He's planning a final standoff with Congress, by dropping a plan as soon as this week to close Guantanamo without Congress's help — though his office has been saying he will have a plan for some time now. (In November, Congress passed its annual defense spending bill that, per usual, restricts the president from transferring Guantanamo detainees to the United States.)
But Obama must decide how badly he wants Guantanamo closed. Trying to transfer the remaining 112 prisoners by himself could lead to a much broader fight with Republicans over the president's constitutional power. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is threatening to sue the president if he acts over Congress's wishes.
Obama already scored a major legislative victory this summer when he persuaded enough congressional Democrats — yes, he was working against much of his own party on this one — to give him authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership without congressional say-so on every little detail.
His job is only half-done, though. The United States and 11 other nations came to an agreement on the deal in October, and Obama needs to sway enough lawmakers on both sides to approve the whole package.
Lawmakers will soon review the sprawling deal and could vote on it this spring at the earliest. Getting it passed is going to be an uphill battle for Obama, reports The Washington Post's David Nakamura. Liberal Democrats are concerned about the trade deal's environmental consequences and potential drag on U.S. manufacturing jobs, while some Republicans worry that the deal isn't strong enough.
The stakes are also higher for Obama than simply completing the biggest free-trade deal in modern history. This trade agreement is a major economic cornerstone of Obama's pivot to Asia, Stokes said. Without TPP, he will lose one of his most concrete examples of a shift to Asia that has struggled to take shape.
Our original post said "ink an international climate change deal," but Obama has already crossed that off his list. The United States and 195 other countries signed a landmark deal in Paris in December to try to curb global greenhouse gas emissions.
To hold up the U.S. end of the bargain to help limit global warming temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius, Obama can mostly work around Congress. The treaty will probably not have to be ratified by the Senate, and Republican lawmakers opposed to such action on climate change will have trouble blocking it over Obama's veto pen.
But there are risks to going it alone: All of Obama's work could be undone by another president.
Obama is leaning in on Syria in his final months in office. In addition to stepping up airstrikes on the Islamic State militant group there, he announced in October that he's putting 50 Special Operations forces on the ground, appearing to go back on his past statements he wouldn't commit ground troops to Syria.
This is happening as Russia has jumped into the Syrian conflict, aiming to help President Bashar al-Assad keep control of his crumbling country. That's a major problem for the White House, which is facing an already no-win situation in an increasingly violent Middle East.
But Russia's sudden prioritization of the region could be just the crisis the world and Obama need to find a solution, Stokes said. Already, it forced diplomats with stakes in the region to meet at a hastily organized conference in Vienna last week to talk about what to do, he noted.
"I think there's a sense that a political agreement is not imminent by any stretch of the imagination," Stokes said, "but that in the next year you may get parties into a region where they can start thinking more broadly."
Either way, Obama would really like to leave office without the civil war in Syria — something that is fueling the Islamic State's movement — still raging.
Yes, Obama announced a historic nuclear agreement with Iran in July, and yes, he managed to avoid a reluctant Congress from blocking it in September.
But the deal is still mostly on paper, which means that several GOP presidential candidates' campaign promises to "rip it to shreds" — as Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) likes to say — are legitimate threats.
That is, unless Obama can spend the next year or so setting key elements of the deal in motion. That would make it much tougher for another president to come along and undo one of Obama's biggest foreign policy achievements, Stokes said.
These days, Obama and Republicans celebrate when they can agree on a budget just to keep the government running. So there's little hope that they will come to an agreement on the president's other major domestic policy goals, such as immigration reform.
One bright spot is criminal justice reform. A bipartisan bill to change federal sentencing mandates is moving quickly in the Senate and has the potential for bipartisan support in the House, too.
Obama has made reforming sentencing laws a priority recently. In 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the department would stop charging nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that require judges to enact mandatory minimum sentences. After the independent U.S. Sentencing Commission announced changes to sentencing guidelines for drug offenders, the Justice Department recently released 6,000 federal prisoners, the largest one-time release ever, who were sentenced for non-violent drug crimes.
Not just any court case, mind you. After 26 states challenged his executive actions on immigration, Obama is betting it all on the Supreme Court.
A federal court upheld the states' challenge on Monday, and by Tuesday, the White House confirmed that it would ask the Supreme Court to rule next year on whether he stayed within his constitutionally limited powers by deferring deportations for millions of young immigrants and some of their parents.
If the Supreme Court takes up the case, it could rule by June, leaving just months for the administration to start enrolling immigrants and create a buffer for whoever comes into the White House next — and whatever vision of Obama's they might try to undo.