WASHINGTON — It was supposed to be a joke. “Are you still president?” comedian Stephen Colbert asked Barack Obama earlier this month.
But the question seemed to speak to growing weariness with the president and skepticism that anything will change in Washington during his final two years in office. Democrats already are checking out Obama’s potential successors. Emboldened Republicans are trying to push aside his agenda in favor of their own.
At times this year, Obama seemed ready to move on as well. He rebelled against the White House security “bubble,” telling his Secret Service detail to give him more space. He chafed at being sidelined by his party during midterm elections and having to adjust his agenda to fit the political interests of vulnerable Democrats who lost anyway.
Yet the election that was a disaster for the president’s party may have had a rejuvenating effect on Obama. The morning after the midterms, Obama told senior aides, “If I see you moping, you will answer to me.”
People close to Obama say he is energized at not having to worry about helping – or hurting – Democrats in another congressional election on his watch. He has become more comfortable with his executive powers, moving unilaterally on immigration, Internet neutrality and climate change in the last two months. And he sees legacy-building opportunities on the international stage, from an elusive nuclear deal with Iran to normalizing relations with Cuba after a half-century freeze.
“He gained some clarity for the next two years that is liberating,” said Jay Carney, who served as Obama’s press secretary until this spring. “He doesn’t have as much responsibility for others.”
Still, pillars of Obama’s second-term agenda – gun control, raising the federal minimum wage, universal pre-school- seem destined to stand unfulfilled. Wrapping up the Iraq and Afghanistan wars isn’t turning out to be nearly the tidy success story Obama once envisioned. Even supporters say one of the president’s top remaining priorities may have to be simply preventing Republicans from dismantling his earlier accomplishments, including the health care law.
The Yes-We-Can man is entering a twilight of maybes, his presidency still driven by high ambitions but his power to achieve them running out.
Before the midterm election results arrived, Obama’s advisers say, the president realized he would finish his presidency with Republicans running Capitol Hill.
Whatever message the Democrats’ defeat sent about the president’s own standing, Obama concluded the status quo meant more gridlock.
Indeed, 2014 had been another year of fits and starts for a White House that has struggled to find its footing in Obama’s second term.
The feeble HealthCare.gov website stabilized, but scandal enveloped the Department of Veterans Affairs. Syria got rid of its chemical weapons, but a violent extremist group pulled the U.S. back into military conflict in the Middle East. The unemployment rate fell, but so did Obama’s approval ratings – to the lowest levels of his presidency, worse than the second-term averages for most recent presidents.
“I don’t care who you are, after eight years or six years of the presidency, your influence has eroded,” said Robert Dallek, a historian who has met periodically with Obama. “Even someone like Eisenhower or Reagan, you just can’t sustain it.”
While White House officials acknowledge the presidency has challenges in its waning years, they say recent economic gains and executive actions on immigration and climate change show Obama still can exert considerable influence.
“This year the president’s policy successes vastly outstripped his political successes,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior White House adviser.
Nearly two dozen White House officials, former Obama aides, presidential historians and political analysts discussed Obama’s standing as he closes his sixth year in office, some on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss their conversations with the president or his top advisers.
For much of the year, Obama appeared to struggle with the realization that his political standing had slipped.
He publicly complained about criticism of his foreign policy by pundits in Washington and New York (his private gripes were more colorful and profane). Despite Democratic pleas to stay out of November’s elections, he said his policies were indeed on the ballot. He desperately sought to break free of the confines of the White House.
One afternoon in June, he joined his chief of staff in making an impromptu Starbucks run on foot, leaving aides and reporters sprinting to catch up.
“Bear on the loose,” the president’s advisers jokingly said. They said it was good for his mood to break free from the bubble.
But there were also real concerns in the West Wing about his behavior. Not only was he trying to escape the ever-present press, but Obama was ordering his Secret Service detail to keep its distance.
In 2014, Obama also went back to war in the Middle East. Less than three years after the last American troops left Iraq, Obama sent U.S. forces back to train and assist the country’s security forces in fighting Islamic State extremists. By fall, the U.S. was launching airstrikes against the militants in Iraq and Syria.
As he announced the strikes, Obama promised Americans this time would be different from the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No U.S. combat troops would on the ground, he said.
But he seemed to be trying to reassure himself as much as anyone else.
In public and in private, Obama appears to understand his presidency may end on a war footing. He’s been reading “Redeployment,” a collection of short stories about the Iraq war by former Marine Phil Klay. Shortly before Christmas, he made an unusual visit to a military base in New Jersey to thank troops and their families – and pledge to preserve hard-fought military gains abroad.
Obama is realistically optimistic about what he can get done over the next two years, advisers say. He wants to try tax reform and sees opportunities to accelerate growth and job creation with the economy on firmer footing. Aides have reached out to historians and political scientists to solicit ideas for Obama’s next State of the Union address, including fresh ways to address income inequality.
“They have reasonable expectations,” said Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who spoke with White House aides about income inequality before the election. “It is the sixth year, after all.”
A big question hanging over the White House is how much Obama, whose charisma once charmed the world, can still shape the national debate.
“There’s almost always a point of diminishing returns on a president’s words,” said Jeff Shesol, a former presidential speechwriter for Bill Clinton.
Indeed, the president is forging ahead as something of an isolated figure.
December’s debate over keeping money flowing to the government showed Democrats in Congress won’t hesitate to go their own way. In recent weeks, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York has questioned the timing of Obama’s 2010 health care law. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi pronounced herself “enormously disappointed” that Obama embraced a spending bill she saw as a GOP attempt at blackmail. And Sen. Bob Menendez, the outgoing Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, began work with Republicans on new penalties against Iran – against Obama’s wishes.
Inside the White House, Obama’s tight inner circle of loyal advisers keeps shrinking.
The trio of political gurus who helped run his presidential campaigns – David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs and David Plouffe – have long since moved on. As has onetime chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago. Other longtime aides, including Pfeiffer and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, are said to be eyeing exits. Bringing in fresh talent is becoming a greater challenge. Obama may have to navigate this challenging phase of his presidency without a full stable of trusted advisers with whom he’s comfortable.
Many Democratic operatives are also more interested in spots on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s potential presidential campaign than joining an administration entering its twilight. In some instances, it has been hard for the White House to get prominent Democrats to publicly back Obama’s policy decisions, particularly on foreign affairs, until they know Clinton’s position. Clinton is widely expected to announce a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Obama is trying to branch out. He started keeping his version of a bucket list: the names of authors, business leaders, innovators and others he wants to bring to the White House for a private lunch or dinner. Some who have visited: inventor and business tycoon Elon Musk, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, a major Republican donor.
Obama has opened up his social circle beyond a core group of friends from Chicago and his childhood in Hawaii.
He’s become close to former NBA basketball player Alonzo Mourning, who has hosted fundraisers for Obama’s presidential campaign. Former football player Ahmad Rashad, who dated senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett earlier this year, worked his way into the president’s golf outings and joined the first family on vacation in the Florida Keys and Martha’s Vineyard.
ESPN host Michael Wilbon, an occasional golf partner, said Obama displayed an astounding “ability to compartmentalize” amid the past year’s frustrations.
“A lot of successful people have to have that, but not like the president,” Wilbon said.
Obama admits to being distracted at times. Asked how much sports he watches on TV, the president told ESPN this month, “There are times I will admit at night, when I’ve got a really fat briefing book, where I might have the game on with the sound off.”
Less than halfway through his presidency, Obama reflected on how being in office had left him “all dinged up.”
The vaunted “hope” posters from his 2008 campaign are “all dog-eared and faded,” he said at a fundraiser three years later.
He was searching for ways to re-create the energy of 2008. Heading into his final two years in the White House, that challenge is greater.
While Obama and his team talk a good game about opportunities ahead, they’ve been here before: Plunging into a new year full of energy and ideas, only to run smack into Washington gridlock.
Signs that Obama’s presidency is closing are all around.
Within weeks, the race to replace him will begin in earnest. Democrats are lining up to endorse Clinton, though she’s yet to declare her candidacy.
By spring, a committee of Obama friends and advisers will announce which city will host his presidential library. Honolulu, Chicago and New York are in contention.
People close to Obama say he is weighing what he will do when he leaves the White House at the relatively young age of 55. He is studying the paths his predecessors have taken and has expressed interest in working on both domestic and international issues. He is considering ways to expand mentoring programs he started for young black men in the U.S. and emerging leaders in Africa and Asia.
“He’s going to have a very unique opportunity and ability to reach young people not only here but in other countries,” said Jon Favreau, Obama’s longtime speechwriter who left the White House last year.
It is less clear where Obama and his family will go after their time in the White House ends. They own a red-brick, Georgian-style home in Kenwood, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Their oldest daughter, Malia, graduates from high school soon and has been looking at colleges in California. The president is said to be drawn to the idea that he could blend in more easily in bustling New York.
Obama is already imagining life with fewer restrictions.
Asked in a New Yorker interview earlier this year whether he would want to be a judge, Obama said that sounded a bit “too monastic.”
“Particularly after having spent six years and what will be eight years in this bubble, I think I need to get outside a little bit more.”