What Obama can do before he leaves office

The final countdown.
The final countdown.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

With the political media focused predominately on president-elect Donald Trump’s interview process for top cabinet positions in his administration, we all tend to forget that US president Barack Obama still has a little less than two months in office before his second term finally ends. While this isn’t a particularly long period of time for him to achieve monumental things, it’s a window wide enough to tie up loose ends.

President Jimmy Carter’s final few weeks are perhaps the best modern illustration of how a president in the twilight of his administration can free the incoming commander-in-chief from a major headache. Before Ronald Reagan was sworn in, Carter successfully hammered out a deal with the Iranians that finally freed American hostages after 444 days in captivity.

Thankfully, president Obama doesn’t have to deal with a tremendously complicated hostage crisis involving hundreds of American citizens. He does, however, have plenty of things on his docket that require his full attention before he heads for the White House exits.

1. Making progress on Israel-Palestine


President Obama devoted one of his first major foreign policy addresses to the intractable Israeli-Palestinian dispute, a conflict that has vexed multiple American presidents and claimed thousands of Israeli and Palestinian lives over generations.

Several months later, in June of 2009, Obama delivered a major foreign policy address at the University of Cairo where he received a resounding ovation due to his staunch advocacy of a Palestinian state. “[I]t is…undeniable that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland,” Obama told the large audience ”So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.”

Seven years after he delivered that speech, however, prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian solution are worse than they were before Obama took office. Two rounds of failed negotiations in 2009-2010 and 2013-2014 were major blows to momentum. Washington has become increasingly frustratedindeed livid, by repeated announcements from the Israeli government about more settlement building in the West Bank. Palestinian political dysfunction between Fatah and Hamas and within Fatah itself has convinced Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Ramallah is too distracted and divided to participate in a credible, serious, and bilateral negotiation.

President Obama’s election was met by euphoria around the world and massive expectations that would have been impossible for anyone to meet. But a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was always thought to be one of his personal commitments. For the sake of the process and his own legacy, Obama should put forth his own US peace plan and outline the series of concessions that the Israelis and Palestinians need to make in order to ensure that a two-state solution isn’t thrown onto the ash-heap of history. Obama would be in good company if he took this route: before former president Bill Clinton vacated the Oval Office, he issued his own plan, widely thought to be one of the most serious proposals the United States has ever made.

2. Close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility

By the time Obama took over from president George W. Bush, the Guantanamo Bay detention facility was still very much a central part of America’s counterterrorism apparatus. A total of 241 prisoners were locked up in Gitmo at the time, a population that included individuals who were either misidentified or who were so low-level in the terrorism hierarchy that intelligence officials concluded there wasn’t much information that could be elicited from them during interrogations.

President Obama made it abundantly clear where he stood on Guantanamo. On Jan. 22, 2009, Obama’s legal team authored an executive order that designed to transfer detainees who no longer posed a direct threat to US citizens and US security interests, and to speed up prosecutions of those who should be charged with crimes. The Obama administration followed that up with another executive order two years later establishing the Periodic Review Boards to provide US officials with an opportunity to review the cases of individual Guantanamo detainees in order to determine whether they should still be held in the facility.

And yet, 59 detainees remain in Guantanamo. Barring some unforeseen and last-minute event, president Obama will leave office with the Gitmo facility still open for business. Because a unilateral closing of Guantanamo would provoke congressional Republicans to file a lawsuit, Obama’s Justice Department should instead issue a legal memo justifying why future commander-in-chiefs should be able to shut the prison down using the existing authority of the executive office. If president-elect Trump has a change of heart (he currently has spoken out in support of the facility), he will have a ready-made an insurance policy.

3. Giving a prime time speech on political discord

The partisanship that has been swirling around Washington for the past eight years has gotten remarkably bad. Exhibit A: the three-week federal government shutdown in 2013. Exhibit B: an unwillingness from Republicans to hold confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, president Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.

If president George W. Bush’s battles with congressional Democrats over the Iraq war, judicial appointments, and enhanced interrogation were unproductive, president Obama’s battle with congressional Republicans over practically every issue have been cutthroat. No individual is in a better position to talk to the American people about how poisonous the political gridlock has become.

That is exactly what president Obama should do. While a specially scheduled prime-time speech may seem overly dramatic, president Obama would be smart to use his going-away address to drill home a message that Americans and their elected representatives in Congress need to hear—unless civility, professionalism, and pragmatism return to Washington, the US is highly likely to atrophy and the American people’s trust in government will only deteriorate further. For the health of the Republic, conservatives, liberals, and moderates need to start cooperating with one another again instead of worrying day in and day out about party loyalty.

* * *

Like every president in the modern era, president Obama has had his fair share of successes, failures, political victorious, and public embarrassments. However, he can distinguish himself by using the weeks of his second term to clear some items off the deck for his successor.