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Obama unleashed: President goes his own way in final years in office

President Obama, in an apparently unprecedented step, only took questions from female reporters during a news conference Friday. It might be a very small example of how the president, often criticized for his caution, is now doing things his own way. Peter Baker of the New York Times joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington, D.C. with more on Obama's final term strategy. ​

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You probably heard that during his news conference yesterday, President Obama took the apparently unprecedented step of only taking questions from female reporters.

  • BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:

    Carrie Budoff. Cheryl Bolen. Julie Pace. Lesley Clark. Roberta Rampton.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It might be a very small example of how the president, often criticized for his caution, is now doing things his own way as he begins his last two years in office.

    For more, we are joined by Peter Baker, White House reporter at The New York Times.

    So, is this press conference an example of this new President Obama that we're seeing in the last six weeks?

  • PETER BAKER:

    Yes, that's a good question. The truth is I was in the room, had my question ready to go, and I didn't even notice that it was only women being asked.

    The truth is, there are a lot of — you know, strong, powerful, and incredibly talented women in the White House press corps. So, it's hardly an unusual thing to have them ask questions of the president.

    But what's interesting, of course, is the president is coming off a period where he's supposed to be in lame duck mode, having lost rather decisively the midterm elections.

    And instead, he's cut a climate deal with China. He's issued an immigration order that's pretty sweeping, and this week, of course, the big diplomatic opening to Cuba. So, if he's a lame duck, he clearly hasn't gotten the memo.

    He wants to show anyway that he's not a lame duck, and we'll see how far he can take it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What are the calculations, at least from the White House, that you're hearing that went into this? I mean, clearly, it wasn't a surprise that he had all these things lined up, and was it dependent on how the midterm elections turned out?

  • PETER BAKER:

    Each of these, of course, is a different thing. I mean, he had a trip to China scheduled for after the election, regardless of how the election turned out, and they've been negotiating the climate deal for quite a while.

    This Cuba deal has been in the works for 18 months. You know, I don't think it's dependent on the election.

    I do think the election, though, at least according to his aides, you know, has given him a sense of feeling liberated not just from the campaign but even from his own Democrats.

    You know, he's been taking on his own fellow allies in Congress on a couple of occasions since the election. He no longer feels wedded to them in a way that he feels he has to worry about their election chances cause the campaign is over, so he can take on Republicans when it comes to things like immigration. He can take on the Democrats when it comes to things like these tax deal and spending deals they have been working on.

    So, it's going to be interesting to see how he takes this next two years, whether this is a new President Obama, whether there is a temporary moment, but it's certainly been a fascinating few weeks.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And this isn't too dissimilar with what President Bush did in his last two years, right after a pretty bad election result then, too, midterm.

  • PETER BAKER:

    Yes. You know, it's interesting, after his sixth year, after his second midterm, President Bush came out of it, having lost both Houses of Congress, and he took away a message exactly the opposite of what the winners of that election thought it was. They thought it was a mandate to get out of Iraq.

    He went the opposite way. He doubled down. He sent more troops. He changed the strategy. He said, we're going to take one more shot at winning this thing and I don't care if there is a political price to be paid.

    And it did pay off for him, because obviously, the violence went down substantially over the next year, and he was able to leave behind an Iraq at the end of his term that looked a whole lot better than the one that he had in front of him at the end of that midterm.

    So, he did defy, in effect, the result of that midterm, at least what some people thought was the result of that midterm, just as President Obama today seems to be taking his own course forward, regardless of what the winners of the midterm elections would have him do.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How much of this is politics and how much of this is an interest in what your personal legacy will be if you're president?

  • PETER BAKER:

    Well, I think if you get at this stage of your presidency, you're six years done. The largest legislative achievements you're going to get are usually behind you and you start to look for other ways to make a difference. You start to think about how history will view you.

    And, of course, President Obama had talked for a long time about reaching out to rogue actors like Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and so forth. Cuba seemed to be an opening that he could, in his view, anyway, make a difference that will stand in the history books.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Peter Baker of The New York Times, joining us from Washington — thanks so much.

  • PETER BAKER:

    Thank you. Happy holidays.

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