WASHINGTON - Something seems to have happened to President Barack Obama as he begins his final two years in office.
Instead of being intimidated by the prospect of Republican Party control of both chambers of Congress beginning in January, the president seems unhindered and in some ways politically liberated, eager to strike out on his own after years of battles with Republicans in Congress.
The latest example was the president’s surprise announcement to reopen diplomatic ties with Cuba, a radical shift in a policy that’s been in place since before he was born.
"We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries," Obama said Wednesday. "Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas."
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Some Republicans and a prominent Democrat were quick to criticize the move on Cuba.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles who settled in Florida, said the president’s decision “represents a terrible setback for the hopes of all oppressed people around the globe.”
Rubio is a potential presidential contender in 2016. He quickly seized on the Cuba opening to launch a broadside against the president’s overall foreign policy, which many Republicans see as an invitation to weakness.
Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was disappointed in Obama’s decision. In his words, it "vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government."
But Republican Senator Jeff Flake supported the president’s move. He argued that the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba in place for the past 50 years has done more to keep the Castro government in power than anything else.
"I am pleased these actions have been taken," Flake said. "I think they will improve the lot of ordinary Cubans and it’s good for Americans as well."
Many Democrats also welcomed the change in direction toward Cuba. The split reaction in Congress means it may be difficult for opponents to muster the necessary will to try and block the president’s actions.
Fears of gridlock in 2015
Republicans were already fixated on ways to stop Obama’s executive action protecting millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation.
There is little question that the Republican majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives will give them political leverage this coming year.
But Republican House Speaker John Boehner also acknowledged that the public will be watching to see whether his party can handle the reins of power.
"Of course the opportunity to serve the American people is always humbling," Boehner recently told reporters. "It is even more so at a time when our country faces such great challenges. We are ready and eager to get to work."
Expect Republican challenges to the president on his unilateral actions on immigration reform.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Tea Party favorite and likely presidential contender in 2016, is among those leading the charge.
"Just about every Republican candidate campaigned saying, ‘If you elect us, we will stop President Obama’s amnesty,’ " Cruz said. "What I’m here urging my fellow Republicans to do is very, very simple: Do what you said you would do."
But Obama made it clear he will not back down on his immigration order.
"Until Congress fixes this problem legislatively, if you have deep ties to this country and you are willing to get right by the law and do what you need to do, then you shouldn’t have to worry about being deported or being separated from you kids," he said last week at an immigration town hall in Nashville, Tennessee.
Opportunity for Republicans
Republicans’ efforts to bolster their party’s image as they run Congress over the next two years could pay dividends as voters look ahead to the 2016 presidential election, said University of Chicago expert William Howell.
"They need to demonstrate their ability to effectively govern. They cannot strictly and solely be an obstructionist force in American politics," Howell said. "They need to demonstrate their ability to get stuff done."
Republican political strategist Phillip Stutts agreed that his party will need to demonstrate an ability to govern over the next two years.
"We have to show leadership," Stutts said. "We have to show that we have ideas. Otherwise, we are not going to win in 2016 and this is our chance."
But Stutts quickly added that Republicans may not have a lot of time to prove themselves.
"I also think there is a limited window going into 2015 and then once some of the potential presidential candidates start staking out positions and announcing, then I think all bets are off," Stutts said. "It is just going to be a war. No one is going to get along and it is just going to be the kind of thing that everybody hates about Washington all over again."
Jeb Bush signals he’s ready
Nobody expected former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to signal his presidential intentions quite this early.
Most of the pundits said the so-called big boys in the race – Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and perhaps 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney – all would wait a few months before announcing their intentions.
But Bush seized the early headlines with this week's announcement that he is officially exploring a White House run for 2016. He spoke about his possible presidential aspirations with Miami TV station WPLG.
"I have no clue if I would be a good candidate," said Bush, whose last campaign ended with his 2002 reelection as governor. "I hope I would be. I think I could serve well as president, to be honest with you, but I don’t know that, either."
Bush also suggested he wouldn’t shy away from big themes during a campaign if he decides to run, and might be willing to take some stands unpopular with the conservative Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.
"You can do big things if you set the stage in a campaign and then move forward," he said. "If you run with big ideas and then you are true to those ideas and get a chance to serve and implement them and do it with passion and conviction, you can move the needle" and effect change.
Public opinion polls have shown Bush to be one of the leaders of the potential Republican presidential field, but not by an overwhelming margin.
Others consider running
His decision could cause other potential contenders to move up their timetables, including Christie, Cruz, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Texas Governor Rick Perry.
It also could be a blow to some possible contenders who had hoped to get traction in a field that did not include a big name like Jeb Bush. Among those in this category are Florida’s Rubio, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
Bush’s early decision to dip his toe in the water could also help line up wealthy fundraisers around the country who otherwise might wait to see what Christie, Romney and Perry will do.
But make no mistake: Bush will have his challenges if he decides to take the plunge in 2015.
Tea Party factions and some conservative talk show hosts see a Bush candidacy as a potential irritant to the Republican Party’s right wing, which could produce several conservative challengers in the primaries.
Bush could have edge
Even if he won the party nomination, Bush would have to face the notion often seen in past opinion polls that the country simply isn’t ready for another Bush to win the presidency in 2016.
But Bush could have an advantage if he runs. Both Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008 were able to survive conservative challenges to win the Republican nomination.
But the 2012 gauntlet for Romney left some Republicans wondering if all that pressure on him to take conservative positions in the primaries left him vulnerable in the general election against Obama.
This time around, more Republicans may be looking for a winner rather than a conservative ideological champion – and that might help Bush.
In addition, the 2014 midterm results were seen by many as a victory for the Republican Party establishment in the long-running battle with Tea Party activists.
Bush could benefit from a party more intent on winning back the White House in 2016 with a candidate who can appeal to moderates and Hispanics, something he was able to do in two election victories for governor in Florida.