Is an energised Obama's stock on the rise?

President Barack Obama smiles. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Why is this man smiling?

US President Barack Obama came out of the year bruised and battered. Many say he also came out smiling, however.

It was undoubtedly a difficult year for the Obama administration. The Democratic Party in Congress was routed during the November mid-term elections, giving Republicans control of both houses.

That election came after months of criticism following the difficult rollout of the Obamacare website in October 2013 and the rise of the Islamic State, a radical jihadist group. Most people expected a lame-duck, weary presidency to follow.

Since that electoral drubbing, however, things have changed. In his end of year press conference, the mainstream consensus was that the president was powerful in his condemnation of Sony's decision to pull The Interview in the face of threats by hackers possibly linked to North Korea.

That briefing came in the wake of a number of other decisive moves from the White House. In the last two months Obama announced an overhaul of the country's immigration system that extended protection to millions of illegal immigrants, signed off a law that will reduce ozone emissions by power plants and factories, and broke with 50 years of precedent by moving to normalise relations with Cuba.

This past quarter, the US economy grew at its fasted rate in 11 years - up by 5%, an adjustment from the original estimate of 3.9%.

"So how have things been going for our bored, exhausted and disengaged president?" asks Kevin Drum for Mother Jones. "He's been acting pretty enthusiastic, energised and absorbed with his job, I'd say."

Drum also notes what he sees as some of Obama's other, more quiet successes. In the past two months Western financial sanctions in Russia have played a huge part in Russia's failing economy. Despite the resurfacing of 2013 controversial remarks from MIT Prof Jonathan Gruber - an important voice in the creation of Obamacare - that cited "the stupidity of the American voter" as one reason the law passed, healthcare exchange signups are ahead of target.

But not everyone is rising to applaud. The American Thinker's Rick Moran says that the victories Drum refers to came at a great cost and were often not very effective.

For example, he writes, the Western sanctions are not what is hurting the Russian economy. Instead, the country was dipping into a recession before the measures were enacted. The main problem in Russia today is that the price of oil has gone into a free fall. And that ozone reduction? Moran says that the pricey plan will only improve air quality slightly.

Image copyright European photopress agency
Image caption The Russian rouble sank to record lows

"I suppose you can find a pony in any manure pile if you look hard enough," he writes. "Someone should suggest to Kevin Drum that he keep digging - he's bound to find something eventually."

John Avlon writes for the Daily Beast that Mr Obama is changing his tack by going on the offensive. Instead of reacting to Republicans' policy ideas, he is forcing them to react to his.

While this might be seen as aggressive, making it more difficult to find common ground, Avlon writes that Obama is banking on the fact that it's in Republicans' self-interest to remain at the bargaining table.

"Would more kumbaya moments between parties be better for the country?" he asks. "You bet. But are they likely to occur given the current polarisation of our parties and the persistent attempt to delegitimise this president? Not so much."

Other commentators caution that these actions could also alienate Republicans and destroy any chance of the two sides finding a common ground.

This coming year will present its own set of political challenges, including the closing of Guantanamo Bay as well as a new tax and trade policy. The White House is expected to focus on economic changes that are aimed at revitalising the middle class.

Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W Bush, says that Obama's seeming lack of concern about his relationship with Congress is troubling. Beginning next year, that might turn into a problem.

"If the president disregards Congress, then Congress can disregard the president," Mr Fleischer tells the Wall Street Journal.

The president's unilateral actions should not be mistaken for actual policy triumphs, says Commentary magazine's Jonathan S Tobin.

He writes that because of "Obama's ideological fixation with outreach to tyrants", the world is a more dangerous place than when he was elected. On top of that, many of his actions can be crippled by Congress.

"So while the last month has been full of presidential sound and fury, these actions only mask a deeper malaise that won't be fixed by Obama's characteristic hubris about his actions," he continues. "The failures of his first six years still hang over this presidency and are why he remains deeply unpopular."

When it comes right down to it, Dan Balz writes for the Washington Post, Obama is still in a weakened position.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, which Balz notes was before the action on Cuba, placed the president at 41%, where it's been stagnant for most of the year. And those numbers are coming at a time where the president will face the most divided capital since he's taken office, Balz says.

"He may have left town feeling good, but the next two years will be anything but easy," he concludes.

(By Kierran Petersen)