President Obama has begun his administration's final phase the way he began several other chapters of his presidency: seeking to recover from disaster.
Obama has moved vigorously since his party lost the Senate in November. Without consulting Congress, he's offering legal status to millions of immigrants. He's restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. Above all, he's striving to show he will not be a lame duck.
The president took our questions the day before he left Washington for the holidays. The 40-minute, year-ending interview offered clues to his final two years in the Oval Office, which is where we met. NPR is publishing the conversation in three parts — starting with Obama's efforts to govern alongside (though not necessarily along with) a Republican Congress.
Something has changed since the campaign season, when Obama was delaying action on immigration, fearing political damage. That led to our first question: Why execute these maneuvers now?
Obama added that it's fair to think of him as a president who thinks he has done what he had to do, and now is free to focus on what he wants to do.
But Obama is not entirely "liberated": He can't finish what he started alone. He'll need acts of Congress to complete immigration reform, or to lift the Cuba embargo. That barely begins the lengthy list of issues on which the president would like the help of lawmakers if he could get it.
For six years, the GOP has been criticized for reflexively obstructing Obama, and the president has been criticized for keeping his distance from lawmakers. Could the president possibly do anything to improve the situation?
Translation: I won't change anything specific, but hope my opponents' interests compel them to change.
At the same time, Obama acknowledged that parts of the Republican Party never will agree with him on an issue that is central to the final part of his presidency: immigration.
In the same part of our conversation, Obama repeated that he thinks the issue is up to Republicans.
Does his executive action "spur them to work once again with Democrats," he asks, or does it "solidify what I do think is a nativist trend in parts of the Republican Party?
"And if it's the latter, then probably we're not going to get much more progress done and it'll be a major debate in the next presidential election."
I came away with a sense of a president who is willing to work with Congress, in theory. But he no longer seems willing to wait for lawmakers to see the world as he does.
This is the first of three parts of our year-end conversation with President Obama. In tomorrow's second part, we begin with a question: Is America more racially divided than it was before President Obama took office?