Obama’s Last Hurrahs A busy White House on the eve of transition
He is hoping to either buttress a lackluster political legacy or to force Trump’s hand with a series of “fait accompli”. The demands of Trump’s Office and the turbulent political situation he is both cause and victim of might make it impossible for him to reverse Obama’s decisions, setting the outgoing President with a last, if petty, victory.
With just a few weeks to go until the inauguration of President-Elect Trump’s Administration and his destined-to-be-controversial cabinet, President-Eject Obama (as political pundit Steve Sailer put it) has been and is challenging notions of what a “lame duck” President should do with his time. He has been extraordinarily active in taking actions which Donald Trump would not entertain so lightly. In this, he is hoping to either buttress a lackluster political legacy or to force Trump’s hand with a series of “fait accompli”. The demands of Trump’s Office and the turbulent political situation he is both cause and victim of might make it impossible for him to reverse Obama’s decisions, securing the outgoing President with a last, if petty, victory. The situation is not lost on political observers, interested or disinterested. For instance, the Russian Embassy in the UK tweeted the following appraisal of the situation.
For President Obama’s supporters, or Donald Trump’s detractors, these last few weeks in office are a crucial moment to use whatever power he has to advance an agenda which, at best, will be put on hold for four years and, at worst, will be buried under the ideological realignment the US is going through, which will eventually involve the Democratic Party. Getting a few last good shots in can make a difference in the eyes of committed ideologues, as well as pad the resume of the Obama Administration’s 8 years in office.
Donald Trump’s supporters, along with politically neutral observers who are more interested in the integrity of political processes and institutions will claim that Obama’s actions are an abuse and an imposition on the incoming Administration. There is too little time left in Obama’s last term to govern effectively, by action, reaction and finetuning, so what he is doing now is not governing as much as trying to force the hand of the incoming Administration. It belongs to a different political paradigm legitimately instated during the last election, which saw the Democrat’s adversaries (one hesitates to say the Republicans) win both the Presidency and the Congressional seats . Right now, 25 or half of the American states are run by a trifecta of Republican governors and majorities in both state Congressional Houses (Nevada does not count, it has only one), while Democrats can only claim 6 states in this way .
There is too little time left in Obama’s last term to govern effectively, by action, reaction and finetuning, so what he is doing now is not governing as much as trying to force the hand of the incoming Administration.
Seen in this light, the political process in the US, which is as much based on traditions, shared assumptions and unwritten rules as it is on formal procedures, continues its slide into dysfunction. The ideals of orderly government and transitions are challenged not just by Soros-funded Purple Revolutionaries and #NotMyPresident twitter guerrillas and flash mobs, but also by an outgoing Administration that is so partisan that, like a student racing against the clock on a test, it will not relinquish the Presidential Seal until the “Professor” grabs it from its hand. This author professes certainty that, had the positions been reversed, the Republicans would have done the same, since the dysfunction is more or less evenly spread out in the American body politic.
So, what has President Obama been up to?
His movements have been mostly taken to shore up centerpieces of his agenda, if not with any sort of effectiveness, then to at least cement his image as having tried to the bitter end, leaving it up his successors to continue the progressive struggle.
For instance, in the last few months of the Presidency, admissions of new refugees have skyrocketed. According to the Daily Caller :
“The Obama administration is resettling significantly more refugees in the final weeks of 2016 compared to the same time period last year, state department figures reveal.
From the start of Fiscal Year 2017, Oct. 1 2016 through Dec. 27, a total of 25,671 refugees have been resettled in the United States — little over 290 refugees per day. During that same time period in 2015, 13,791 refugees were resettled, almost 157 per day. The Obama administration resettled nearly 85,000 refugees in FY2016 and the White House is on pace to resettle nearly double that amount.
The Obama administration has resettled 3,566 Syrian refugees since Oct.1, 2,892 more than the 674 that were resettled during the same time period in 2015. On top of this, the amount of Somalian refugees resettled in the United States has doubled since Oct. 1 compared to the same time last year.”
Let us not forget the last minute agreements that the White House is pursuing with Australia to resettle, in the US, 4,000 Muslim refugees who did not pass Australian standards for asylum (either their claims of victimhood or their security checks). As an aside, Australia’s famously strict asylum processing procedures involve detaining prospective refugees in offshore camps in partner countries like Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The refugees must either leave or stay for at least two or three years while their applications are being processed. The Australians adopted this measure, which did much to redeem the very liberal and immigration-enthusiastic (yet still discerning!) nation in the eyes of this author, after it was determined that the prospect of landfall in Australia was attracting more and more people to make the very perilous maritime journey that ended up killing hundreds of alleged refugees each year. With the very strict policy in place and well-advertised in source nations, Australia has seen the refugee flow become a trickle and no more drownings since Decembers 2013 . Europe, take notice!
In addition to taking Australia’s unwanted refugees off its hands for immediate resettlement, the refugee resettlement flows promoted by the Obama Administration do not take into account subsequent population increases as part of family reunification policies. These are subject to heavy abuse, as a 2008 DNA test proved , for instance, that numerous Somalis claiming to be a family were not even related to each other. The particular program was shut down for nearly four years, was started back up during the Obama years and, as Ann Coulter documented in her book, “Adios, America!” which has been claimed to have influenced Donald Trump’s views on illegal immigration and refugees, is rife with abuse, fraud and disregard for the national interest. A very good, ongoing resource for understanding refugee issues is the website www.refugeeresettlementwatch.com run by a few volunteers. Hopefully, The Market for Ideas will also have a report on the various issues surrounding refugee programs being used for accelerated immigration to the detriment of real refugees fleeing immediate persecution.
An important component of the refugee flows are Syrian refugees , who have been increasing in numbers despite the election campaign controversies surrounding security issues with vetting the refugees. FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress  that his agency cannot properly vet any Syrian refugees because of their lack of documentation and the FBI’s lack of access to databases of information (which may or may not exist in Syria) on the people being vetted, a result of the war and the challenges facing the Syrian government.
Meanwhile, there has been a surge in illegal immigration from South of the border, especially children or people who claim to be minors . With the exception of the worst days following the 2008 crisis, illegal migration has increased , contrary to what various pundits have claimed. Fake families abound, as do claims for refugee status from gang or cartel violence, persecution and even spousal abuse. It’s not only Mexicans and Central Americans – some of the individuals crossing illegally are Syrian or African migrants, with confirmed Jihadi infiltrations. They come because the Obama Administration has undermined the border protections and created the expectation of amnesty, while setting up an irresistible pull when someone like Donald Trump threatens to come in a few months to fix everything and close the routes for illegal migration. The Daesh (or Islamic State) publication Dabiq suggested that a nuclear weapon could be smuggled into the US through its porous borders  (Canada should not be excluded either), and Middle Eastern men inexplicably carrying steel cylinders in their backpacks have been arrested while illegally crossing the border .
While, so far, the article has focused on refugees, another centerpiece of the Democratic agenda has been a judicial reform based on the assumption of unfairness and racial bias especially towards African Americans and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics (while other minority populations have very little crime issues) . With a true solution not possible given the state of Congress and the limited influence Obama could bring to bear on state and local authorities already tapped out in expectation of Trump’s “law and order” approach, what has been left for President Obama is to utilize his powers of mercy to either pardon or commute sentences of, supposedly, non-violent drug offenders. According to the New York Times :
“Just weeks before leaving office, President Obama on Monday issued 78 pardons and commuted the sentences of 153 prisoners, extending his acts of clemency to a total of 1,324 individuals, one of the larger uses of the presidential power to show mercy in modern presidential history.”
President Obama has said that he will continue to review applications for clemency until his last day in office, which will probably extend his already impressive record of awarding clemency to 50 times more people than George W. Bush and to more than the prior 11 President combined. While American justice has often been seen to be heavy-handed, the files of those who have benefitted from Obama’s clemency have been published . This author questions the possibility that someone selling 1,000 pounds of marijuana or half a kilogram of cocaine would likely be a non-violent offender who is easily rehabilitated. Very high quantities are the sign of ties to organized crime and, often, lower value drug convictions based on personal possession are the only way of placing hardened criminals who cover their tracks well behind bars. After all, the notorious Prohibition era gangster Al Capone was imprisoned for not paying his taxes.
Notably, President Obama has been engaged in a “war of words” with Russia over the allegations of Russia “hacking the election” in Donald Trump’s favor. The vague formula being used throughout the American mainstream press conceals the fact that the object of the hack was neither paper ballots nor offline voting machines, but the computers of the Democratic National Convention. Julian Assange of Wikileaks and former British diplomat Craig Murray alleged that the thousands of emails published by Wikileaks (and whose most important findings can be viewed here ) were delivered by an internal whistleblower, not by Russia. The emails contained proof of collusion between the Clinton campaign and the media against rival Bernie Sanders and then Donald Trump, as well as damaging references to Clinton Foundation conflicts of interests, campaign donors and so on. Regardless of who delivered the emails to the American public’s attention, the impact was significant, affecting both Hillary Clinton’s image and creating legal issues for her. The vagueness of the “hacking the election” phrase exemplifies how a nefarious process must be alleged in lieu of clearly explaining what happened, for fear that the electorate might excuse the foreign interference since it brought to light such gross abuse.
With Trump’s more conciliatory tone soon to become White House policy, it is possible that President Obama seeks to “muddy the waters” by making it harder for Trump to disengage from prior White House policy and establish a rapprochement with Russia without appearing to be weak or giving credence to allegations of his being a Russian puppet.
Regardless, the White House’s displeasure with Russia has bled into the mainstream media, and has reportedly led to calls for swift reactions, like cyberattacks and further sanctions. Just recently, the US expelled 35 Russian diplomats and has introduced sanctions against another four Russian officials. It is probably exploring ways of counteracting growing desire on the part of key partners to weaken the sanctions regime applied to Russia in order to pursue economic cooperation. With Trump’s more conciliatory tone soon to become White House policy, it is possible that President Obama seeks to “muddy the waters” by making it harder for Trump to disengage from prior White House policy and establish a rapprochement with Russia without appearing to be weak or giving credence to allegations of his being a Russian puppet. Whatever the ultimate design of the Presidency’s posture, it is a departure from the idea of leaving the new Administration some breathing room to present itself as a new start.
For all the opportunistic “sound and fury” of the Presidential displeasure over Russian electoral interference, which is not visited on other countries with deep tools for influencing the American political process, like Mexico, Saudi Arabia or Israel, the measures that were taken did not stray from the norm. The United States and Russia are in a continuous tango of cyberespionage, infiltration, turning assets and expelling those who have exposed themselves. One of the more memorable cases was that of Anna Chapman, a Russian national with British citizenship by marriage who was a sleeper agent part of a spy ring administered by the Russian SVR. She was part of a 2010 exchange of prisoners with Russia. This is a game which has probably been going on since there was first a Soviet Union.
A clear break in policy
Finally, we have the spectacle of yet another resolution (no. 2334) in the UN General Assembly to denounce Israel for its settlement policies in the West Bank. The language used was standard and there was little to commend this initiative as being more relevant than those that came before:
“Condemning all measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, including, inter alia, the construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law and relevant resolutions…Reaffirms that the establishment by Israel of settlements… has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”
Since 1972, the US has vetoed 85 resolutions regarding Israel or Palestine, a huge proportion of its total use of vetoes. For it to have abstained now is the perfect combination of the shock of a longstanding break in US policy and the lack of consequences for the gesture.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has made Israel the subject of almost 50 resolutions, almost half of the country-specific resolutions that the body has drafted since being created in 2006.
Something else happened – the United States did not use its veto as a Security Council Member to slap down the resolution and simply abstained. Since 1972, the US has vetoed 85 resolutions regarding Israel or Palestine, a huge proportion of its total use of vetoes . For it to have abstained now is the perfect combination of the shock of a longstanding break in US policy and the lack of consequences for the gesture. Obama’s relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu has been rocky. Despite the voting patterns of American Jews, where over 70% support the Democrats, it has been the Republicans, and especially the Evangelical wing of the Party, who have been Israel’s greatest champions in the US. During Obama’s historic conclusion of negotiations with Iran, a veritable storm of activism, both Republican and Israeli, battered the American political scene. One key event, aside from the open letter of Republicans to Iran warning that no deal made by President Obama will survive Congressional scrutiny, was when the Republican leadership made arrangements for Netanyahu to address Congress for the third time, a privilege that had previously been awarded only to Winston Churchill. Contrary to all decorum or proper hierarchy, the Republicans bypassed the White House and arranged the speech over the head of the President, who is constitutionally charged with foreign policy. Netanyahu then used the opportunity to attack the Iran Nuclear Deal and President Obama in very strong terms. With the abstention in the UN Security Council, Obama reached across the metaphorical aisle and punished a very troublesome allied leader. Secretary of State John Kerry added TNT to the fire, by saying something that probably sent shivers down Israeli spines:
“But here is a fundamental reality: if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic – it cannot be both… The Israeli Prime Minister publicly supports a two state solution, but his current coalition is the most right wing in Israeli history… policies of this government – which the Prime Minister himself just described as “more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history” – are leading in the opposite direction, towards one state. In fact, Israel has increasingly consolidated control over much of the West Bank for its own purposes… Let’s be clear: settlement expansion has nothing to do with Israel’s security; many settlements actually increase the security burden on the IDF. And leaders of the settler movement are motivated by ideological imperatives that entirely ignore legitimate Palestinian aspirations… There are over 80 settlements east of the separation barrier, many located in places that would make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible… So if there is only one state, you would have millions of Palestinians permanently living in segregated enclaves in the middle of the West Bank… separate but unequal.”
John Kerry basically warned Israel that a one-state solution means that they will have to choose between the ethnoreligious nature of the state they have built and the status of liberal democracy, which is very important at a moral and prestige level to maintain good relations with US leadership, which has been committed to defending the only democracy in the Middle East. And then he ends his remarks with the phrase ”separate, but unequal” which is a reference to the American Civil Rights Movement that basically signifies a liberal throwing down of the gauntlet. The same sort of rhetoric, appealing to the mythology of the Civil Rights Movement which is endowed with both symbolism and emotion, was used to marginalize apartheid South Africa, one of Israel’s closest partners, until its leadership relinquished power and ushered in a wholly different country which is, in many ways, including the general welfare, much less successful.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, confident of Trump’s stance once he takes power, reacted strongly to these words and also accused the Obama Administration of orchestrating the resolution itself. Interestingly enough, the language used by Netanyahu, which involved alluding to secret proof straight from the Administration, suggests a possible future scandal related to espionage or dual loyalties within the (former) Obama Administration. Newsweek wrote about the aftermath of the dispute :
Ambassador Ron Dermer went one step further, asserting that Israel would share the intelligence it has with the incoming U.S. administration on how President Obama is directly responsible for the passing of the resolution.
An Israeli ambassador publicly proclaiming that Israel is collecting intelligence on any American president is simply astounding. …
Netanyahu, in his response [to Kerry’s speech], had to go on the offensive against the Obama administration one last time by saying:
“We have it on absolute, incontestable evidence that the United States organized, advanced and brought this resolution to the U.N.S.C. We will share this information with the incoming administration, some of it is sensitive, it’s all true.”
Still in the game
President Obama has kept busy in the little time he has left until he hands over the reins of the still most powerful nation on Earth to Donald Trump. He has continued to pursue his agenda, to the extent to which the powers of his office render him able to without Congressional backing. Nevertheless, those powers are extensive. As he said in 2014 regarding the uncooperative Congress recent elections had saddled him with, “I have a pen and a phone”, as well as power over America’s administrative apparatus.
In addition to his public spats with Russia and Israel, as well as his pursuit of his refugee and immigrant vision, which were noteworthy for being in complete defiance of the expected tenor of the new Administration, he has made another break with tradition. Normally, Presidents would retire outside Washington and dedicate their lives to philanthropy and their memoirs, while especially avoiding commenting on politics. Barack Obama, the private citizen, plans to stay in Washington DC and to take an active role in molding the future leaders of the Democratic Party. As of yet, one cannot imagine what the consequences will be once this precedent is established, especially given the character of the certain future former President Trump. The result over American political dynamics could be far reaching. Moreover, Obama’s desire to keep his hand in the game will also have consequences for his Party, which has timidly begun to realistically criticize his leadership and the electoral failures and to plan regenerative strategies that rely on the Obama-ite Democratic vision to step aside in favor of new solutions . It will be hard for that to happen with the former President breathing down their necks.