U.S. Flag Back in Cuba; "Change" Back in Obama's Grasp

U.S. Flag Back in Cuba; "Change" Back in Obama's Grasp
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America’s stars and stripes will fly over an American embassy in Havana this month for the first time since 1961. Flying nearly as high after more than six years in office are President Obama’s job approval numbers.

Whether breaking logjams in Washington, or skirting them, something about the president’s governance has been winning applause lately. Obama may have put his finger on it Wednesday, using one familiar word five times to describe his push for normalized relations with Cuba.

“This is what change looks like,” the president said, standing beside Vice President Biden in the Rose Garden as they revised a page from America’s Cold War era. “When something isn't working, we can and will change.”

During his second term, Obama has circumnavigated the legislative branch with evident satisfaction, taking to heart the lessons of predecessors who found new avenues to embrace “the will of the people,” whether through his deportation waivers, climate change policies, clean air regulations, overtime pay rules, or campaign-style messaging.

Attempting to persuade Tennessee to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the president flew south Wednesday to try to nudge the red state’s power brokers and its citizens to accept the law’s federal benefits. The leader of the free world stopped with his motorcade at the home of one Nashville breast cancer survivor who wrote to the president to praise the law, offering Kelly Bryant a VIP lift to the event, and a chance to tell her story.

“If ordinary folks feel it is important, elected officials start to respond,” Obama explained. 

This is not Obama’s “pen and phone” strategy aimed at Congress. This is now Obama’s “pen and microphone” strategy focused on voters, governors, corporations, churches, the Pope, advocacy groups, unions, allied nations – any power structure outside Congress that can deliver changes the administration favors.

Obama knows his administration botched the storytelling about the health law, leaving Americans confused about the law’s prominent court challenges, marketplace rollout problems, and political vows for repeal. He is suddenly eager to fix that.

He wants to expand the population of covered beneficiaries under the Medicaid umbrella, the federal-state cost-share program that covers low-income people. The larger the population of satisfied beneficiaries, the more embedded in public comprehension the law becomes. Obama is betting that governors and state legislatures, having twice seen the Supreme Court affirm the health law, will reconsider the attraction of accepting federal funding to offset their states’ health care costs.

Obama spent much of his first term trying to influence public opinion against long odds. He said Wall Street bailouts were necessary; a massive health law would let insured Americans keep their doctors; gun background checks would curb mass gun violence; economic recovery would be swift and robust; and U.S. forces would exit Iraq and Afghanistan on set timetables.

Shaping public opinion is harder than heeding it, even for the president with YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, off-the-record sessions with major columnists, and the round-the-clock attentiveness of television, radio and major newspapers.

The American people overwhelmingly support normalizing relations with Cuba. They are warming to a health law that impacts a fifth of the economy. They support same-sex marriage. They are deeply ambivalent about risking U.S. forces to fight the Islamic State in Iraq. They hated the bank bailouts and are convinced Middle America got the shaft. They worry the recovery (and international trade) buoyed corporate America at the expense of everyday workers. They believe American politics are poisoned by the wealthy and influential, to the detriment of the voiceless. In short, they believe the country’s future looks iffy.

Obama still believes that change is best and hope is necessary. But having notched a significant trade victory with GOP help in June, the president will return to detouring around Washington to champion his revived progressive agenda. First up, a verifiable, enforceable Iran nuclear deal, by July 7 or thereabouts.

There will be an American embassy in Cuba by the end of July, regardless of the GOP’s misgivings. There will be a Cuban embassy in Washington. Obama will work with allies, including the Pope, to try to lift the embargo, one piece at a time, and move on from there. Convinced the Senate won’t confirm a U.S. ambassador to Havana anytime soon, Obama won’t nominate one right away, his top advisers said Wednesday.

“Change will not be easy,” Obama said after winning the South Carolina primary in a tough race against Hillary Clinton in 2008. 

“Change will take time.” 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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