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With Climate Announcement, Obama Gets a Win – and Maybe A Second-Term Legacy

Image: US President Barack Obama press conference in China

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping speak to reporters during a press conference at the Great Hall of the People (GHOP) in Beijing, China, 12 November 2014. HOW HWEE YOUNG / EPA

President Obama’s second term in office has been lacking in big achievements. Background checks for gun purchases didn’t make it through the Senate. Immigration reform isn’t becoming law this Congress, though the president is expected to take executive action on this front. And just last week, Obama’s party took a major drubbing in the midterm elections. But there is one potential second-term achievement that’s taking more and more shape -- on climate change. The big question, however, is whether Obama can keep it. Late last night, the United States and China announced they had “negotiated a sweeping agreement to cut emissions drastically by 2030, a deal that President Barack Obama called a ‘major milestone’ Wednesday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing,” NBC News reports. This breakthrough follows the proposal Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency unveiled in June requiring existing power plants to cut their carbon emissions by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. But as we mentioned yesterday, next year’s GOP-controlled Congress will seek to undermine those EPA rules. As the New York Times adds, “While the agreement with China needs no congressional ratification, lawmakers could try to roll back Mr. Obama’s initiatives, undermining the United States’ ability to meet the new reduction targets.”

U.S. and China Strike Historic Climate Change Deal 2:31

But these are unilateral actions that another president could reverse

Remember, Obama made combating climate change a big part of his second inaugural address. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said in that speech. Of course, it came after he disappointed supporters in his first term (no cap-and-trade bill through the Senate). And it’s important to point out that Obama’s second-term actions on the climate -- the EPA rules, the deal with China -- are unilateral actions that can be undone by another president. But make no mistake: This is Obama’s pet issue of his second term.

China’s Xi Appears To Ignore Question From US Reporter 2:11

Democrats applaud the climate deal with China, Republicans criticize it

Democrats cheered the climate deal with China. "Now there is no longer an excuse for Congress to block action on climate change,” said outgoing Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA). “The biggest carbon polluter on our planet, China, has agreed to cut back on dangerous emissions, and now we should make sure all countries do their part because this is a threat to the people that we all represent." Republicans, meanwhile, panned it. "This unrealistic plan that the president would dump on his successor, would ensure higher utility rates and far fewer jobs," Senate Majority Leader-to-be Leader Mitch McConnell said. Of course, McConnell used those EPA regulations -- which would hurt Kentucky’s coal industry -- to his political advantage in his re-election bid. And climate change definitely wasn’t a political winner for Democrats in the midterm election (see: Steyer, Tom). Then again, our NBC/WSJ poll from back in June found 57% of Americans saying they would approve of a proposal requiring companies to reduce greenhouse gases that cause global warming, even if it would mean higher utility bills for consumers.

They’re BAAAAACK: Lame-duck session of Congress begins

“Congress is back in town. After nearly two months away to campaign before the decisive midterm elections, members have arrived in Washington to complete the unfinished business of the 113th Congress,” NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell writes. And she lists what’s likely to pass during the lame-duck session (government funding -- either through a C.R. or an omnibus package), and what’s not likely to pass (immigration). By the way, only 185 bills have become law during the 113th Congress -- which is down from the 196 the 112th Congress had passed into law during this same time period. And the 112th Congress, of course, was the least productive Congress in modern history when it comes to passing legislation into law.

Packed Agenda Greets Lawmakers in Return to D.C. 1:15

FCC chair to break away from Obama on “net-neutrality”?

The Washington Post has this striking piece. “Hours after President Obama called for the Federal Communications Commission to pass tougher regulations on high-speed Internet providers, the agency’s Democratic chairman told a group of business executives that he was moving in a different direction. Huddled in an FCC conference room Monday with officials from major Web companies, including Google, Yahoo and Etsy, agency Chairman Tom Wheeler said he preferred a more nuanced solution. His approach would deliver some of what Obama wants but also would address the concerns of the companies that provide Internet access to millions of Americans, such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T.” (Comcast is the parent company of NBC News.) More from the Post: “[T]he move by the White House has put Wheeler in an uncomfortable spotlight. The two men have long been allies. Wheeler raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama’s campaign and advised the president on his transition into the White House. Obama last year appointed Wheeler to lead the FCC as it was poised to tackle its biggest issue in years — the rules that govern content on the Web.”

AP calls Sullivan the winner in Alaska

Turning back to last week’s midterm races, it appears that Republicans, as expected, have picked up an additional Senate seat. The AP called that Republican Dan Sullivan defeated incumbent Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK). “Sullivan led Begich by about 8,100 votes on Election Night last week, and when state officials counted absentee and questioned ballots Tuesday, the results indicated that Begich could not overcome Sullivan's lead.” Begich hasn’t conceded the race, and NBC News hasn’t yet called it (though you can probably expect something from our Election Desk later this morning). A Sullivan win would mean Republicans have picked up an EIGHTH Senate seat (following AR, CO, IA, MT, NC, SD, WV), and we’ll find out in December if they win a NINTH (LA).

The “Meh” election

The election may be in the books, but the country isn’t very optimistic that the coming two years will be any more productive or civil than the last ones, and the same old divisions between the parties don’t seem to be going anywhere fast. A new post-election study from the Pew Research Center finds that about half of Americans say they’re happy that Republicans won control of the Senate, compared to 38% who disagree. That margin is almost identical to Americans’ feelings after the 2010 election. The country is also equally divided about whether President Obama or Republican leaders should “take the lead in solving the nation’s problems.” And overall, there’s just not much hope for change after the latest election: nearly six in 10 believe that Obama will get “nothing” or “not much” done in the remaining two years of his presidency; only 21% say they believe the election results will change the way things are going in the country “a lot”; and just 18% say they think relations between both parties will improve in the coming year.

2014 turnout lowest for a midterm since 1942

Speaking of a “meh” election, Michael McDonald at the University of Florida has estimated that midterm turnout was just 36.3% -- the lowest for a midterm since 1942 (33.9%), when America was going to war against Germany and Japan. But it is worth noting that turnout was SUBSTANTIALLY higher in states holding contested statewide elections -- like Alaska (55.3%), Colorado (53%), Iowa (50.6%), and Wisconsin (56.9%). Still, just slightly more than a third of eligible adults showing up is a poor number.

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