Why do I call myself a conservative rather than a liberal, even while sharing certain culturally liberal values with many of my liberal/progressive friends? President Obama’s approach to the presidency explains it best, I think. Since attaining the presidency, he has been unilateral and overreaching in his use of executive power. He’s done it by personalizing his politics, making it about doing “the right thing” as he sees it — regardless of what others happen to believe or want. From forcing through legislation in a Congress dominated by his own party in the early years of his administration — without regard or respect for input from the other side — to the days thereafter when he told us he had a “pen and a phone” to disregard the will of a Congress he no longer controlled (having lost it in mid-term elections) this approach has been a hallmark of his presidency. It’s the very opposite of what a constitutional government like ours demands; what American conservatives care about.
Now, on his way out the door, this president seems intent on doubling down on the unilateralism that has characterized his years in office as he takes a number of steps to lock in policies he favors in ways that will be difficult to unravel. After ending the Dakota Access pipeline by ignoring a judicial decision in favor of its supporters shortly before the election (just as he had previously put the Nebraska XL pipeline project into limbo), he has now gone on to “permanently” preclude offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic (because the archaic law the move is based on lacks explicit wording allowing presidents to undo what has previously been done). Just the other day he again “permanently” locked down huge expanses of territory in the western states, precluding access for state or private use (based on a similar legislative oversight).
And just last week he reversed longstanding American policy vis a vis Israel by refusing to veto a Security Council Resolution hostile to that nation’s interests, a resolution now all but impossible to rescind (passing resolutions is easy if they aren’t vetoed but it takes another resolution to undo them and Russia and China have vetoes they are unlikely to refrain from using). Now Obama has just imposed sanctions on Russia for its role in the cyber theft of Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign emails — not undeserved by any means, but likely to have repercussions for the next president. If Trump decides to undo or moderate them, he’ll open himself to damaging charges of being Putin’s poodle — but if he doesn’t he’ll be starting his presidency off antagonistically with the Russian leader, making it harder for him to work his famous deal making magic. So the outgoing president has contrived to leave his successor with a series of Hobson’s choices.
President Obama was eloquent in the days after Trump’s electoral win about making the transition from his administration to Donald Trump’s an amicable one, citing the manner in which George W. Bush’s team had cooperated with his when he entered the White House. Many of us still recall the similar manner in which the elder Bush did the same with the incoming Bill Clinton administration. President Obama promised a transition like those.
But he’s always talked a good game, his words charming and soothing, sounding all the right notes, while his actions have inevitably struck different chords. Instead of working toward the smooth transition he promised, the outgoing president spends his waning weeks giving us more from that famous pen and phone, tying new knots in the national political fabric for an incoming president, already confronted with eight years of executive overreach, to untangle.
There are more ways, it turns out, to show one’s political pique than just removing all the “w’s” from Whitehouse keyboards.