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Presidents and Transitions

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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.

About Stuart W. Mirsky

Stuart W. Mirsky, a former New York City official who last served as Assistant Commissioner for Operations in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before retiring in 2002, wrote a column, "The Rockaway Irregular," for The Wave, a south Queens based weekly, for more than a decade (until Hurricane Sandy changed the equation). He is an original founder of the Rockaway Republicans, one of the most active Republican groups in southern Queens, and author of a number of books, including The King of Vinland's Saga, an historical novel of the Norse in 11th century North America, A Raft on the River, a memoir of Holocaust survival, and Choice and Action, a work of contemporary philosophy addressing the implications of relativism and nihilism for our moral beliefs.

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One comment

  1. Reading this morning’s New York Times, I’m struck by their very different take on what Obama is doing. As is to be expected, they think it’s just find for the current president to do everything he can to hem in his successor and make it as difficult as possible for him to alter Obama administration actions. They even argue that George W. Bush did that when he negotiated a status of forces agreement with then Iraqi PM Nouri al Maliki, thereby forcing the incoming president to remove American troops by 2011! Completely disregarded is the obvious fact that the Obama administration simply took the tough negotiating position of the Iraqi government as an opportunity to walk away and did — or that President Bush was under great pressure at home to demonstrate that our Iraqi presence was not an indefinite one. Looking for something to justify President Obama’s unprecedented series of executive actions to lock into place his own policy agenda, even in the face of its rejection by the voters (Trump won the electoral college after all!), they latch onto the most feeble analogy imaginable. But then, what else is new in the progressives’ efforts to always justify anything their champions do in the furtherance of the progressive cause? Since they simply have no respect for the other side of the argument, since conservatism to them is tantamount to a kind of heathenism in the church of the nation’s political life, anything done to block or undermine it is justifiable to them.

    Yet it is simply inarguable that no president in modern times has ever been so willful about his agenda or so willing to tie the hands, or try to, of the person the voters have chosen to succeed him. If the country as a whole had wanted Obama 2.0 it had every opportunity, by electing Hillary Clinton, to achieve that. It didn’t and that despite the historically high negatives Donald Trump’s poll numbers revealed for him. Yet the political left remains convinced that Obama is on solid ground in doing whatever he can to balk the incoming president. He makes the staffers in the White House of Bill Clinton, who famously pulled “w” of White House keyboards and grabbed stuff on the way out the door look like pikers. President Obama is doing something much more worse if not quite as tacky. Through all the last minute policy decisions via executive actions, when outgoing presidents usually affect a modest quietude and work to ease the transition in the face of coming change, Obama has gone the old Clinton staffers one better. He is trying to permanently fix the government landscape to make the Trump administration’s job harder in doing what it was elected to do.

    As the incoming president would say (or rather tweet), “so sad.”

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