Obama: Busy With His Pen to the End

Obama: Busy With His Pen to the End
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President Obama may be golfing with pals and snorkeling with his family in Hawaii as 2016 comes to a close, but he’s simultaneously making full use of his presidential say-so heading toward Inauguration Day.

At the White House, they call it running through the tape. Donald Trump may rhetorically be warming up for the presidency, but Obama has been so busy with his last-minute to-do list that some conservative detractors have fumed he doesn’t know how to cede the stage.

In the president’s mind, his executive activism is about performing the job he was elected twice to do. And in the final weeks, it’s also about laying down markers for those who share his beliefs and will try to plot similar ideological paths in the years ahead.

“I think over the next 45 days, what I can say is, `Here's how I would do it if I were sticking around,’ but I'm not sticking around,” Obama said during a reflective, pre-holiday interview with David Axelrod, his former campaign manager.

The president is leaving office at the height of his second-term job approval, which has encouraged his full-steam-ahead determination before a GOP riptide washes Democrats out to sea on Jan. 20.

On Thursday, Obama amended one of his own executive orders to grant himself and future presidents the authority to sanction Russia for its cyber intrusions into the U.S. election. He expelled 35 Russians from the United States and denounced the government of President Vladimir Putin for its involvement in the hacking, theft and leaking of emails, as well as its harassment of U.S. diplomats working in Russia.

Reacting to a cyber world where sovereign nations wage stealthy attacks against the internal politics, economies, defenses and critical infrastructures of other nations, Obama sent a public message after delivering a private warning to Putin: Stop, or pay a price. And by doing so, he challenged his successor, who argues for “America first” policies, to follow that lead.

Some of Obama’s recent executive decisions are continuations of presidential promises he made, and in some cases persistent rebukes to what he frequently denounced as an obstructionist Republican-led Congress.

A year ago, acknowledging the long odds of fulfilling his campaign pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay prison on his watch, Obama told an interviewer for French television that he would not give up. "Guantanamo continues to serve as a recruitment tool for jihadists. It is something we need to stop," he said. "I will make this argument until my very last day as president."

And he has. Obama informed Congress this month that the United States would resettle to other countries as many as 19 detainees still held at the military prison, which will leave about 40 others at the facility. At its peak during the administration of George W. Bush, the prison held more than 700 terror suspects in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Trump, however, has vowed to keep Guantanamo open and perhaps add to its prisoner ranks. “I want to make sure that if we have radical Islamic terrorists, we have a very safe place to keep them,” he told the Miami Herald in August, adding that he believed Obama was “allowing people to get out that are terrible people.”

The president’s failure to shutter the prison was the result of a cascade of roadblocks and miscues: failure at the outset of his presidency to develop a politically viable plan, subsequent congressional restrictions that tied his hands, political resistance to civilian justice for or release of accused terrorists, a slow military trial system and lack of evidence to support some prosecutions, and the complex process of arranging with other countries to accept long-held detainees.

While Obama struggled to empty out the military prison, he had more success using his executive heft to free non-violent drug offenders held for long periods in U.S. prisons.

In the final weeks of December, the president bestowed the gift of mercy by commuting the sentences of 153 prisoners and pardoning 78 offenders. The pardons wipe away any legal residue of conviction. Since 2009, Obama has used his clemency powers to shorten the sentences of more than 1,000 offenders, far exceeding the combined records of his predecessors, especially past presidents who governed during the so-called war on drugs.

Obama’s determined focus on evaluating individual cases of those sentenced to long incarcerations for non-violent drug crimes was a bookend to his frustrated efforts to enact criminal justice legislation that included sentencing reforms. Despite support on both sides of the aisle, the legislation died during the 2016 election year.

On the environmental front, the president used his pen, and the powers granted to him by law, to preserve lands and undersea terrain. This month while in Hawaii, Obama set aside parts of Utah and Nevada as national monuments, enraging Republican critics who envisioned commercial uses or energy exploration in those areas. In Utah, the president shielded 1.35 million acres considered sacred by Native Americans and prized by conservationists. And outside Las Vegas, Obama preserved more than 300,000 acres deemed ecologically fragile land. Utah’s attorney general promised a lawsuit.

A week before his Utah and Nevada announcements, Obama put certain U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and 31 Atlantic Ocean canyons "indefinitely" off-limits for future oil and gas leases, in coordination with the Canadian government. He also blocked new mining claims outside Yellowstone National Park.

The administration also continued to invest in programs Trump’s advisers will assuredly re-evaluate, but may be politically challenged to discontinue. For example, the Department of Defense announced the creation of the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, located in Manchester, N.H., which is a public-private consortium to develop techniques for repairing and replacing cells and tissues. The Pentagon said innovations “may one day lead to the ability to manufacture new skin for soldiers … or develop organ-preserving technologies to benefit Americans waiting for an organ transplant.” It was the 12th such manufacturing hub spearheaded and funded by the Obama administration.

Pretending to ignore Washington’s suspended animation while the Trump administration transitions into place, Obama this month also continued to fill federal vacancies on boards and councils with his chosen appointees, and even created a new federal advisory council a few weeks after the election. By executive order on Nov. 16, the president created the Council on Community Solutions, charged with devising “a lasting structure for federal agencies to strengthen partnerships with communities and improve coordination across the federal government in order to more efficiently deliver assistance and maximize impact.”

Trump, who has pledged to purge Obama’s executive actions, proclamations, orders, determinations and regulatory initiatives wherever possible, was handed one more advisory group for his chopping block. But the Council on Community Solutions was created to help the federal government reach out to many of the types of rural, suburban, tribal and forgotten voters Trump says he represents.

Busy to the end, Obama has reveled in challenging Republicans and is working overtime to put fast-drying asphalt atop paths he cleared.

“This administration has been dedicated to leaving the federal government better and more effective than we found it,” he said last month as he created the new council. “This Executive Order is just one part of accomplishing that goal and … will equip new leadership with an important tool as they undertake new policies and initiatives.” 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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