Obama fires up transition machinery
World tours taking on a valedictory tone
The sun is slowly beginning to set on Barack Obama’s presidency.
He is wringing every last ounce of power from his remaining time in office, nominating a Supreme Court justice, making a historic visit to Cuba and barging Friday into Britain’s debate over whether to leave the European Union.
But the inexorable ebbing of time and influence that overtakes second term presidencies is becoming more noticeable with every week that goes by as some of his official duties begin to take on a poignant, valedictory tone.
“I still have a few more months,” Obama joked during a town hall meeting with British young people in London on Saturday when asked how he viewed his legacy.
“Actually, eight months and 52 days – not that I’m counting. I just made that up, I actually don’t know,” Obama said, adding that he would not have a good sense of his legacy for another 10 years.
In the most tangible sign yet of Obama’s long goodbye, The New York Times reported this week that presidential aides have begun the process that will transition the mammoth U.S. government into the hands of the 45th President next January.
But there are also less formal signs that it will soon be time to cede the reins of power.
At times, Obama’s trip to Britain seemed more like a farewell tour. He lunched with Queen Elizabeth II and reminisced with David Cameron about their years in power together.
“David and I shared an extraordinary partnership,” Obama said at a Friday news conference with the British leader, who returned the compliment.
“I’ve always found Barack someone who gives sage advice,” Cameron said. “He’s a man with a very good heart and he’s been a very good friend and always will be a good friend, I know, to the United Kingdom.”
The President, meanwhile, presented the Queen with a 90th birthday gift: a book showing photos of her meeting with past U.S. presidents dating back to a 1951 encounter with Harry S. Truman when she visited Washington as a princess. The gift was a tacit admission that Obama’s administration, like others before it, will soon pass into history.
Obama has already delivered his final State of the Union address, his last budget and hosted the annual St. Patrick’s Day visit by the prime minister of Ireland one last time.
He recently presided over his final meeting of the nuclear security summit that was his brainchild amid doubts that the event – now deprived of Russian participation – would outlive his presidency. He will make his final tour of annual global summits later in the year, and embark on his farewell trip to Asia – a region synonymous with his presidency.
Back home on Thursday, Obama will host one of the most treasured rituals of his presidency – a Seder dinner to mark Passover with Jewish members of his staff – for the last time. And next weekend, he’ll take some pithy, parting shots at his tormentors in the press at his final White House Correspondents Association Dinner.
Rising approval rating
These milestones are happening at a time when there’s some evidence that the public is viewing Obama – whose presidency has been scarred by vicious partisan warfare in Washington – more fondly. His approval rating as measured by Gallup recently hit 51%, its highest level in three years. Still, Republicans are also counting the days until the end of a presidency they view as characterized by executive over reach, and reversing the policies of the Obama years has been a theme at the center of the GOP presidential race.
The receding days of a presidency are poignant, but also serve as a reminder that a President still has much to do during their final months in office, said Jeff Shesol, a speechwriter who was at Bill Clinton’s side during his last year as president.
“There is a sense always that the clock is ticking,” Shesol said.
“The State of the Union is the first in a series of lasts and they are just going to follow one from the other until … frankly after the summer, people stop paying attention to the White House,” he said. “Everybody’s focus shifts to what is happening out on the campaign trail.”
The most important duty for a President contemplating his retirement is ensuring the continuity of government as one administration ends another begins. That’s especially important at a time when terrorism concerns are prevalent; former President George W. Bush set the gold standard when he handed over the White House to Obama in the first transition after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
“What President Bush realized was that a sloppy process was too risky and dangerous to allow it to continue,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that hosted the Obama administration’s recent retreat with the 2016 campaigns to discuss the next transition.
“In the post 9/11 world, they understood they had a vulnerability that could be exploited by dangerous people,” said Stier, who also runs the Center for Presidential Transition. “It is a point of maximum risk when you have a baton handoff between governments.”
Fading political light
Of course, every outgoing administration fights against the fading of its political light.
“There is a purposeful quality to a White House in its last year if that White House has the political strength to assert itself,” Shesol said. “There is energy there for a last push, whether it lasts until June or July.”
Obama has fought hard against the limitations of a lame duck presidency by using his waning years in office to pursue legacy initiatives like the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba and issuing executive orders on immigration and climate change.
He’s used his bully pulpit to lash out at GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s rhetoric on Muslims and questioning of U.S. alliances, which could be a preview of how he may run interference for the Democratic nominee in the fall campaign.
There’s also a sense of creeping liberation about Obama. His robust intervention in the incendiary politics of the referendum in Britain on Friday was a bold step a president learning the ropes might have been hesitant to take.
And in a recent foreign policy interview with the Atlantic magazine, Obama left little unsaid, rebuking “free riders” among U.S. allies in Europe in the Middle East, and even jabbing Cameron over the aftermath of the war in Libya.
But the White House is also chafing at its waning clout.
Republicans are holding firm in their effort to deprive Obama of a third Supreme Court pick, insisting that late Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement must be named by the new president. The administration is locked in a stalemate with congressional Republicans, meanwhile, over funding for an effort to meet the growing threat from the Zika epidemic.
And Obama’s hopes of marking his final year in office with the ratification of the vast Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal look questionable given the strong turn against such pacts that has roiled the politics of the 2016 campaign.
But history suggests Obama will emulate his predecessors in racing all the way to the finish line next year.
“There have been very few presidents who just wanted to get the hell out of there,” Shesol said.