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By Claire Zillman
October 28, 2014

Last week, The Washington Post highlighted the one Democrat who’s not running away from President Barack Obama in the run up to the midterm elections, and Press Secretary Josh Earnest fielded questions about whether the president was still relevant.

Both instances point to Obama’s dismal approval rating and his inability to broker compromises with a Congress trapped in a stalemate.

Things could get even worse for the president next Tuesday, when the Senate is expected to fall into Republican control and political focus will shift entirely to the 2016 presidential elections.

So, how does a leader lacking majority support exert power as his leverage and tenure peter out?

Answering that question is a matter of deciding the purpose of one’s final days in office—whether they’re for building a personal legacy or paving the way for a successor.

If he’s concerned with the former, the president has a few avenues open to get things done even without Congressional support.

In the past, lame duck presidents have turned to foreign policy, where they have a freer hand and partisan constraints are less binding.

With just 18 months left in the White House, President Bill Clinton tried to broker peace in the Middle East with the Camp David Summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian National Authority President Yasser Arafat in July 2000, though the effort ultimately failed.

Two months after the midterm elections of his final term, President George W. Bush made the bold and politically controversial move of ordering the surge of tens of thousands of additional troops to Iraq.

And the president always has the ability to use his authority to issue executive orders. There is wide speculation that after the midterms President Obama could lean on that power to tackle immigration reform.

As a presidential tenure dwindles, executive orders and other overt actions aren’t the only method in which a president can exert authority.

“The one power of the president that can’t be taken away is the ability to set the agenda for public debate,” says Gautam Mukunda, a professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School and author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter. President Obama can use his pulpit to shape the terrain for 2016 by highlighting proposals by the Republican-led Congress—say, the repeal of Obamacare or the deregulation of the finance industry—as radical and out of touch.

That strategy recalls the impeachment proceedings Republicans rolled out against President Clinton in 1998, which backfired and lost the GOP five seats in the House in an election cycle they were expected to win easily.

While Republicans are likely to win in the upcoming round of elections, they may overreach once in control of Congress—so much so that, come 2016, there will be a renewed appetite for Democratic ideals, says Joe Magee, who teaches about power and politics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. It’s up to President Obama to highlight Republicans’ legislative agenda, all while being careful not to provoke a backlash by overexerting his executive powers, Magee says.

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