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Five Things Obama Should Do Before Leaving Office (but Probably Won’t)

Posted on Dec 2, 2016

  President Obama waves to a crowd at the White House after disembarking from the Marine One helicopter. (Pete Souza / White House)

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Watching Donald Trump pick his Cabinet members has been like watching a 16-car pileup unfold in slowmotion. Each move fills us with horror in the knowledge of what the near future brings.

But the assembling of Trump’s transition team has been distracting us from one crucial aspect of our current political mess: what our current president is doing in his last few weeks in office—or, more accurately, not doing. President Barack Obama appears so eager to be done with his tenure that he seems more invested in a smooth transition of power than in fulfilling his duty to the American people.

Ensuring a smooth transition implies business as usual. Except that there is absolutely nothing usual, or even presidential, about Trump’s Electoral College win. And what the president-elect is promising us is so harrowing that Obama owes the nation a last-minute flurry of political actions that are within his power to take before the “Trumpocalypse,” as some are calling it, is upon us.


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Democrats, are you desperate to do something about Trump? Then demand that your current president do you a solid and actually use the popular mandate he earned when he was elected, twice. Obama’s refusal so far to do even one of the following is only more proof of the Democratic Party’s ineptitude and spinelessness.

1. Stop the Dakota Access Pipeline Project

The most important political battle of this year outside the electoral realm has been the indigenous-led resistance against the Dakota Access oil pipeline (DAPL). After many months of activism by the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters, law enforcement has upped the ante in incredibly violent ways, unleashing military-grade weaponry on an unarmed citizenry. President Obama has been forced by public pressure to delay completion of the pipeline. But what is needed is an end to the project.

President-elect Trump, on the other hand, is already eager for the decision to be made during his term and has promised to speed up the Army Corps of Engineers’ review process. Among Trump’s many financial conflicts of interest is his stake in the
. It would be disastrous for him to be the decider on this issue. There is absolutely no doubt about whose side he would take.

Meanwhile high-profile political figures have tried in vain to get Obama to do the right thing on DAPL. From Sen. Bernie Sanders to former Vice President Al Gore and even musician Neil Young, many have appealed to Obama to end the project. Twenty-eight tribal leaders, appreciative of the attention Obama has paid to their communities in the past, have now called on him to “reroute the pipeline away from tribal lands, waters, and sacred places.”

What does Obama have to lose by exercising his authority through the Army Corps of Engineers and doing the right thing?

2. Make a Recess Appointment to the Supreme Court

It is outrageous how the GOP has stood in Obama’s path to filling the Supreme Court vacancy. Without a doubt Democrats would not treat a Republican president in the same manner. No other Supreme Court nominee in the history of the United States has waited as long as Merrick Garland to be confirmed. What’s more, Obama’s pick to replace the late Antonin Scalia does not even come close to espousing the leftist counterpart to Scalia’s extremist right-wing ideology. Like Obama, Garland is a centrist liberal. Unlike Obama, Trump will not hesitate to appoint the most conservative justice possible. The resulting Supreme Court will probably roll back even more of the Voting Rights Act, possibly Roe v. Wade, and who knows what other social and political progress this nation has made in recent decades.

What Obama can do to send a strong message to the Republican Party is make a temporary recess appointment of Garland to the court. Legal experts point out that Obama has the right to do it, even though he has taken scant advantage of the power to make recess appointments as compared with his predecessors. While temporary, Garland’s presence on the court could stave off regressive court decisions for at least a year. Sadly, Obama has given no indication that he plans to exercise his authority.

The larger context is that Trump might get to appoint as many as three justices to the court during his tenure: for Scalia’s seat and those that might be vacated by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who is 83, and Stephen Breyer, 78, both strong liberals. Again, what does Obama have to lose by making a strong gesture with a recess appointment to the court?

3. Pardon DACA Recipients

Among the most terrifying promises Trump made during his campaign was to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. There is especially great fear that he will repeal Obama’s signature immigration executive action, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Already, lawyers are recommending that those eligible for DACA should not apply at this time, given Trump’s election, because in order to be eligible for deportation relief, immigrants have to out themselves to federal authorities. With access to the information of hundreds of thousands of DACA registrants, Trump could easily deport them.

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