Why you should care
Because President Obama has been dealt a bad hand, but he may still bet the house.
Part of a series on President Barack Obama’s last 100 days in the White House — and the legacy he’ll leave behind.
When President Obama and President-elect Donald Trump met in the Oval Office following the election, headlines centered around Obama’s promise to “facilitate a transition.” But another exchange told more of the ties that bind the two. As reporters peppered the pair with queries, Obama tapped Trump on the elbow and said, “Here is a good rule: Don’t answer the questions when they just start yelling.”
It was a fitting closing exchange between Obama, who campaigned on a promise of public transparency yet ran one of the most secretive administrations in history, and Trump, who took that zeitgeist a step further by blacklisting reporters whose coverage he disliked. While the election of Trump means much of the incumbent president’s progress on environmental issues and the Affordable Care Act will likely be erased, at least one part of the Obama-era legacy will persist: the wide expansion of executive power with little oversight or accountability to the public.
That is, unless Obama works frantically in his final two months to solidify other, more favorable aspects of his time as commander in chief. With limited options — Trump has already promised to “cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued” — look for Obama to cobble together what he can in his final days. Of course, it won’t be easy: “In my book, this would go as a hostile takeover,” says Georgia State political scientist Daniel Franklin, who examined the last days of sitting presidents in Pitiful Giants: Presidents in Their Final Terms. “It doesn’t seem fair that given [Obama’s] popularity, he is about to be almost totally repudiated. If he can get past that, and because he is a loyal citizen, he will provide the mechanism for transition even in facilitating his own [policy] demise.”
Restoring His Former Vision of Transparency?
The Obama administration has been more punitive to whistleblowers than previous ones, while access to government officials and to documents has become more restrictive — and covert National Security Agency spying has become ubiquitous under Obama’s watch. For years, transparency advocates have urged him to issue an order requiring government contractors to disclose their political spending. Obama could bolster rulings from the Securities and Exchange Commission and end forced arbitration clauses for companies that do government business, says Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for the nonprofit Public Citizen.
The ultimate move for Obama? Pardoning Edward Snowden …
Such decisions may be especially difficult to reverse for a candidate like Trump, who campaigned to “drain the swamp” of corruption and has suggested a need for campaign finance reform. And it would continue a tradition of outgoing administrations that have approved politically toxic regulations to put the next in a tight spot. In his final months in office, Bill Clinton made his so-called ergonomics rule — a hugely costly adjustment that required employers to retool workstations to prevent stress injuries — and then tightened Environmental Protection Agency restrictions regarding the permissible level of arsenic in water. When the Bush administration had to reverse that first decision, it became “the pro–carpal [tunnel] syndrome presidency,” says Franklin, and “they also became the pro–arsenic in drinking water administration.”
The ultimate move for Obama? Pardoning Edward Snowden, which would boost the president’s stock with watchdogs (and which could not be reversed by a President Trump). Sure, seeing a glimpse of the old transparency-advocating Obama might seem as unlikely as seeing a return of his pre-2008 locks. But with little left to hold on to, Obama could do worse.
Stemming Executive Expansion — With a Little Help
When Obama inherited George W. Bush’s war after 9/11, he also inherited Bush’s penchant for circumventing traditional avenues to pursue his foreign agenda. It was generally accepted because, frankly, Obama was seen by many on the left as a coolheaded purveyor of power (note: most conservatives disagreed with his decision to go at it alone). Now with Trump taking over the reins, those who were previously quiet are frantic about handing the presidency so much power — and many Republicans have expressed concern as well.
California Rep. Ted Lieu and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey introduced the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2016 expressly with Trump in mind. If passed, it would deny the president the ability to launch nukes without a declaration of war from Congress. “The current nuclear launch approval process, which gives the decision to potentially end civilization as we know it to a single individual, is flatly unconstitutional,” said Lieu. There are other important, though less dramatic presidential powers to be addressed. Yet despite their reservations about Trump, Republican lawmakers may be hesitant to diminish the power of the presidency after obtaining it for the first time in eight years.
Wrapping Up His Unfulfilled Promises
Obama has already passed executive orders that secure his global entrepreneurship initiatives, which aren’t likely to draw the ire of conservatives, many of whom support efforts to boost international trade. Trump could seek more isolationist policies, but the selection of Vice President–elect Mike Pence as head of his transition team means that many of his advisers are likely to trend traditionally conservative, and they may suggest he has bigger fish to fry than a fairly successful economic program.
Before boxing up his Nobel Peace Prize and cleaning out his desk, Obama will also seek aid to address the Flint water crisis and fund Vice President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot. That latter project, called the 21st Century Cures package, still has the support of Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, who has called it the most important legislation the outgoing Congress could leave behind.