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"Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter." Back in late December, when Barack Obama launched his final two years in office, those words sounded mordantly self-deprecating.

His policy record at that point seemed decidedly ambiguous. He faced a right-wing Congress that seemed poised to cancel any reforms. The world was fracturing into conflicts that the United States had little ability to control. The phrase "American decline" had become a fixed idea.

But interesting stuff did happen – profoundly interesting stuff, stuff that is changing the shape of the world.

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The best we had hoped for, in 2008, was that Mr. Obama would be able to reverse some of the profound damage George W. Bush did to the power and image of the United States and prevent the economy from sliding into an outright depression.

He did accomplish both tasks exceedingly well: His stimulus program, his financial-sector reforms and his bailout of the auto industry, derided by economists as inadequate at the time, proved extremely effective; the U.S. economy is now soaring ahead of its European competitors, who gambled on tight-money policies and lost.

And he ended both military occupations, which created only failed states open to extremist control (and further military control would only have made this situation worse).

But beyond retreat-and-repair, what would fill the vacuum? The answer has emerged in recent months: Building new forms of influence, through domestic success and international persuasion.

U.S. presidents have generally been realists, who have done everything they could to maintain the existing state of the world, by paying off autocratic regimes that supported the American agenda and attacking those that didn't.

Mr. Obama has set a new course. He has, in a set of long-term plans and careful policies, set out to replace blunt assertion and armed flailing with actual, real-world influence. And we've seen this new influence erupt dramatically this year in three areas.

The first was his Clean Power Act, which forces U.S. generators to abandon coal and fossil fuels (and does so, in a trick worthy of Lyndon B. Johnson, without requiring any congressional approval). It will have a profound effect on the world's carbon emissions, especially in combination with the unprecedented agreement he struck with China. This means that December's UN climate summit in France is likely to achieve world-changing results.

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The second is the Iran deal. Regardless of its specifics, the deal changes the dynamics of world relations. The dispute with Iran now becomes a dispute over an agreement, built on mutual distrust, scrutiny, bickering and constant negotiation, rather than a potentially physical conflict over actual territory and arms. It's worth remembering that the arms-control deal he struck with Russia has been a success, in spite of Moscow's descent into extremism.

And the third is the end of the decades-long deadlock with Cuba, which had eaten up a ridiculous proportion of U.S. political energy and international standing without achieving its goal of ending the Havana dictatorship. Democracy is far more likely to be won, in Cuba as in Iran, through engagement with the economies and populations of those countries: People are much more likely to embrace your model if you stop acting like a dungeon master.

But a fourth and equally important influence-building accomplishment lies in Mr. Obama's ability to turn America back into a model for the world.

The Affordable Care Act has changed the shape of U.S. domestic policy permanently: Universal social programs are now a cherished part of the American reality. His direct confrontation with U.S. penal policy and drug laws (including his mass pardoning of unfairly incarcerated Americans), his protection of six million undocumented immigrants from deportation, his hugely successful stand in favour of same-sex marriage, have set a new tone.

And his new fury at his country's gun laws and racial inequality have given him an international voice – and those views, too, will likely bear fruit once Democrats win a couple more Supreme Court appointments. In six months, he has dissociated U.S. leadership from the ugliest parts of American life – and that dissent will be profoundly influential abroad.

"Obama may be singular as a president, not only because of his striking background," Kenneth Adelman, a former Ronald Reagan official, remarked recently. "It may turn out that unlike virtually any other president, his second term is actually better than his first." Not just better, but historic: It has set the world in a new direction, and given the United States an influence it has lacked for decades.

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