JEROME CARTILLIER - The hammering suffered by Barack Obama’s Democratic party in last month’s mid-term elections could have floored him out as he began his final two years as president. Instead, he has bounced back off the ropes and come out fighting.

One month after losing control of the Senate and with it his last chance of setting the legislative agenda, Obama appears reinvigorated, determined to wield whatever power remains his.

Allies that despaired of his apparent lack of ambition are applauding. And any satisfaction the Republican camp felt at their mid-term victory has quickly given way to fury at the White House decision to wield its executive authority in the service of Obama’s agenda.

The already deep divide between Washington’s warring camps has deepened, ahead of battles over immigration and the budget, while rivals jostle for position ahead of the 2016 presidential race.

Around a dozen potential contenders are champing at the bit, and they will be running against the image of the departing president as much as against their direct rivals for his place.

Obama signalled his new-found free spirit during his Asian tour last month, when he announced a deal with China for the world’s two biggest economies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

While a US president has great leeway in foreign affairs, domestic energy policy is a topic for Congress and many Obama opponents are in any case skeptical about the risk posed by climate change.

Obama returned home to a barrage of criticism but was unrepentant. He insisted the United States can meet his emissions targets through tougher action by the executive’s Environmental Protection Agency, rather than through congressional legislation.

Then he followed up his diplomatic coup with a domestic bombshell: executive action to shield up to five million undocumented migrants from arrest and deportation, again without consulting Congress.

Within 10 days he had made progress on two of his key 2008 campaign themes, exactly at the moment when his conservative rivals might have thought that they had finally stymied his agenda.

‘In your face’

The man who thought that his agenda would now take center stage, senior Republican lawmaker and from next month Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, was affronted by Obama’s audacity.

“By any objective standard, the president got crushed in this election,” he said.  “So I’ve been perplexed by the reaction,” he added, a “sort of in-your-face, dramatic move to the left, so I don’t know what we can expect in terms of reaching bipartisan agreements.”

Obama may find the new mood bracing, but experts are dubious about how much more real progress he can make. “After the elections, all these discussions about this lameduck presidency actually offered a little space for him to show that’s not the case,” said Professor Julian Zelizer of Princeton University.

“But now Republicans are coming back,” he warned, predicting legislative ambushes over government budgets and appointments that could derail all business in Washington for months.

As a warning shot across the White House bows, Senator John McCain threatened Thursday to block Obama’s appointment of respected diplomat Tony Blinken as deputy secretary of state.

If Obama is intimidated, he’s not showing it, pushing ahead with complex legislative programs to support tax reform and an ambitious trade pact with the European Union.

“So the good news, despite the fact that obviously the midterm elections did not turn out exactly as I had hoped, is that there remain enormous areas of potential bipartisan action,” he said.

Behind this idea lies Obama’s hope that individual Republicans will want to add a few legislative reforms to their record as they set their stalls for the 2016 presidential primaries and race.

Even with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, they will have to compromise with their colleagues and with the White House to get much done - so perhaps there is common ground. But perhaps that is too optimistic.  Many observers point out that the calculation was the same in 2012, when hopes were high that the Republican need to recruit Hispanic voters would lead them to compromise on immigration reform.

‘Burn its chances’

Instead, they pivoted right to secure the so-called Tea Party, their own party’s right flank. Zelizer predicts a repeat of this process as Obama tries to find and compromise with moderate Republicans.

“There is an ideological faction of the party that is willing to burn its chances of winning the White House so that they can solidify their hold on Congress,” he warned.  And, while he own time in the White House is mandated to end, Obama can not himself choose to ignore the race to replace him.

The 44th president - who this week once again hosted Hillary Clinton, the favourite for the Democratic nomination, at the White House - needs a defender for his legacy.  As Aaron Miller, the Wilson Center historian, says: “Who precedes you and who follows you is extremely important in how history and historians view your presidency.”