Obama’s Unsmooth Transition
America’s presidential transitions are critical to smoothly transferring power, but are simultaneously fraught with danger. Decisions by the departing president almost invariably affect the new president. While we must not impair the basic constitutional principle that there is only one president at a time, sensible leaders recognize that the world does not begin anew on Inauguration Day.
Both the president and the president-elect can fulfill their respective electoral mandates without undue friction if they handle the task well. If they handle it poorly, America and its friends worldwide unnecessarily suffer uncertainty and confusion that tarnishes the outgoing president’s reputation and unfairly hampers his successor.
Unfortunately, we are now experiencing the second kind of transition. On both domestic and international matters, Barack Obama has taken sweeping executive actions after Donald Trump’s Nov. 8 election but before his Jan. 20 inauguration. These include broad executive orders precluding oil and gas production on hundreds of millions of acres of offshore federal areas; designating broad swathes of Utah and Nevada as national monuments to prevent even carefully monitored economic development; rushing through voluminous new economic regulations; and allowing countless political appointees to “burrow in” to federal career jobs, thereby preventing the incoming administration from removing them.
Internationally, Obama allowed the adoption last month of an unprecedented, harshly anti-Israel UN Security Council resolution, sanctioned Russia, and expelled Russian personnel from America because of alleged cyberattacks in the 2016 elections and harassment of US diplomats in Moscow. He also made further concessions to Iran’s ayatollahs to save the collapsing 2015 nuclear deal. And we still have nearly two weeks until Inauguration Day — ample time for more mischief.
Why has Obama gone to such lengths, which he knows are completely contrary to the policies of the new administration and Republican congressional majorities? While every outgoing administration engages in such activities to some degree, that being human nature, none recently has matched Obama’s frenetic pace. Certainly, building his legacy, boxing in the Trump White House and exacting a bit of political revenge are likely factors.
But the surest explanation is that Obama, like most political leaders, Republican and Democrat, simply did not expect Trump to beat Hillary Clinton. Much of what Obama is now doing he would not have done before Nov. 8 for fear of providing ammunition to his political opposition. Since our presidential campaign season is basically now two years long, Obama had little leeway after losing control of the Senate in 2014 (having already lost the House of Representatives in 2010).
His administration likely did not foresee any problems in a surge of post-Nov. 8 activity because, assuming Clinton won, they did not fear his initiatives would be reversed. He could take controversial steps, receive both the credit and the criticism, and leave Clinton a clean slate. Almost surely she would not have rolled back any significant measures. Trump’s victory changed everything, confronting Obama with the unpleasant reality that both his plans for the transition period and his entire legacy were suddenly in jeopardy.
Other outgoing presidents have not been so churlish. Perhaps the best example is how President George H.W. Bush handled his November 1992 decision to intervene militarily in Somalia after losing just a few weeks before to Bill Clinton. Bush was deeply concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Somalia, which had effectively descended into anarchy. Already a lame duck, Bush nonetheless boldly decided on the day before Thanksgiving to dispatch US military forces (and others willing to assist) to open channels for humanitarian relief supplies to reach endangered Somali civilians.
Although, in the initial stage, Bush insisted on US command to ensure the intervention succeeded, he was prepared to turn over responsibility to a UN peacekeeping force once the mission was accomplished. Success in fact came quickly. Thus, as Clinton’s inauguration approached, President Bush confronted the decision of what to do with the deployed American troops. He informed the incoming Clinton team that he was prepared either to withdraw all US troops by Jan. 20, or leave them in place, depending on what the Clinton administration policy would be. President-elect Clinton responded that he would like the troops to remain, and so they did. Clinton went on to pursue a failed policy of nation-building in Somalia, including the deaths of 43 US troops, but these were all entirely his decisions, unrelated to what he inherited on January 20.
Bush was fully president until Jan. 20, 1993, and he did what he thought needed to be done in Somalia. But he had both the grace and the wisdom to know that his successor might have a different view, and he acted accordingly. President George W. Bush understood his father’s insight, and in his turn acted to provide President-elect Obama with a smooth transition.
It’s too bad Obama hasn’t followed their examples.
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the US permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.