In this Nov. 9, 2015, photo President Barack Obama speaks during a Organizing for Action event in Washington.

In this Nov. 9, 2015, photo President Barack Obama speaks during a Organizing for Action event in Washington. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Facing Divisions at Home and Wars Abroad, Obama May Go It Alone for His Final Stretch

On Guantanamo and other issues, the president has to decide whether he will let Congress stand in his way.

Pres­id­ent Obama is in leg­acy over­drive.

In the course of about a month, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­jec­ted the Key­stone XL pipeline, moved to close down the de­ten­tion cen­ter at Guantanamo Bay, and struck one of the largest trade agree­ments ever, known as the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship. With only a year left in his reign, Obama is look­ing to do whatever he can on his own, but he faces hurdles both in Con­gress and the courts.

Take clos­ing down the Guantanamo Bay de­ten­tion cen­ter, a goal os­tens­ibly shared by Obama’s pre­de­cessor, Pres­id­ent George W. Bush. After weeks of de­bate, the Sen­ate voted 91 to 3 Tues­day to pass a $607 bil­lion de­fense spend­ing bill that fun­nels money to es­sen­tial mil­it­ary pro­grams, but also blocks the pres­id­ent from mov­ing for­ward with a 2008 cam­paign prom­ise to close Guantanamo Bay once and for all. The pres­id­ent’s sig­na­ture on the bill would stop him from trans­fer­ring in­mates from the is­land pris­on to the U.S. main­land, but the White House is also toy­ing with an­oth­er gonzo op­tion: sign­ing the bill and mov­ing for­ward on clos­ing Guantanamo uni­lat­er­ally. Even Re­pub­lic­ans who want to close the base are furi­ous that the ad­min­is­tra­tion would try to trump the le­gis­lat­ive branch again.

“Of course it’s not in his au­thor­ity,” said Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Mc­Cain. “There’s a line in the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill that pro­hib­its him from do­ing so.”

When asked what Re­pub­lic­ans’ re­course might be, Mc­Cain said, “Go to court! Go to court. That’s all we can do.”

An ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion to close down Gitmo would con­tin­ue a sig­na­ture trend of the Obama White House: When faced with op­pos­i­tion from Con­gress, Obama acts alone.

In pri­or years, Obama has moved in the do­mest­ic sphere. On im­mig­ra­tion, the pres­id­ent elec­ted to shield so-called child “Dream­ers” and then their par­ents from de­port­a­tion. (The latest ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion is still tied up in courts as the pres­id­ent enters his fi­nal year in the White House.) And on gun con­trol, the pres­id­ent has also used his pen to sign more than 20 ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions. But with the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion shift­ing to the fore­ground and do­mest­ic-agenda items slip­ping out of reach, the com­mand­er in chief has turned to the arena where the ex­ec­ut­ive branch tra­di­tion­ally ex­erts the most in­flu­ence: for­eign policy.

Last month, Obama an­nounced he would keep nearly 10,000 troops on the ground in Afgh­anistan through most of 2016. Once the can­did­ate who prom­ised to end the war in Afgh­anistan, Obama has found him­self un­able to ful­fill that pledge as the Taliban has ree­m­erged in the coun­try.

And, in Ir­aq and Syr­ia, the pres­id­ent has struggled to find a strategy to de­feat IS­IS, but at the very least he has draf­ted a new leg­al jus­ti­fic­a­tion, known as an Au­thor­iz­a­tion for Use of Mil­it­ary Force, for the new en­emy, in the ab­sence of con­gres­sion­al com­prom­ise. The pres­id­ent an­nounced at the end of Oc­to­ber that he would send up to 50 spe­cial-forces troops to Syr­ia to as­sist in the fight against IS­IS, which was widely viewed as vi­ol­at­ing a pledge not to de­ploy boots on the ground in the coun­try.

“This is so typ­ic­al. Con­gress com­plains that the pres­id­ent doesn’t give us the con­sti­tu­tion­al right we have to make a de­cision and then when he hands it to us, we say, ’No, not now.’ I have seen it time and time again,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, a Demo­crat from Illinois.

Last week, Obama and Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry re­jec­ted the Key­stone XL pipeline, po­s­i­tion­ing the U.S. ahead of glob­al cli­mate talks later this month in Par­is. The polit­ic­ally sym­bol­ic move, along with pre­vi­ously se­cur­ing a ma­jor cli­mate deal with China and re­leas­ing the fi­nal­ized Clean Power Plan lim­it­ing car­bon pol­lu­tion from power plants, could help the U.S. reach a leg­acy-de­fin­ing agree­ment to slow glob­al warm­ing at the U.N. talks.

And on Thursday, White House press sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est re­it­er­ated the pres­id­ent’s com­mit­ment to close the pris­on at Guantanamo Bay.

“The pres­id­ent be­lieves clos­ing that pris­on is a na­tion­al se­cur­ity pri­or­ity,” Earn­est said.

The Pentagon’s plan to close Guantanamo Bay is ex­pec­ted in up­com­ing days, but ac­cord­ing to leaked re­ports, the ad­min­is­tra­tion is look­ing at trans­fer­ring pris­on­ers to fa­cil­it­ies in Col­or­ado, Kan­sas, or South Car­o­lina. The news has at­trac­ted the ire of Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors from those states who ar­gue mov­ing pris­on­ers could make their home states tar­gets of ter­ror­ism.

“I have made it very clear that if the pres­id­ent would get off his leg­acy horse, it would be a good thing,” Sen. Pat Roberts of Kan­sas told re­port­ers. “It just doesn’t add up. I don’t think it adds up at any one of the fa­cil­it­ies.”

But deal­ing those blows to Re­pub­lic­ans on Gitmo, Key­stone, and else­where deep­ens the mis­trust that makes it dif­fi­cult for Obama to achieve oth­er goals—par­tic­u­larly con­gres­sion­al rat­i­fic­a­tion of TPP, which even pro-trade Re­pub­lic­ans have cri­ti­cized for its in­clu­sion of stronger labor and weak­er in­tel­lec­tu­al-prop­erty stand­ards than they pre­ferred. Obama’s last ma­jor push may very well be try­ing to get Con­gress to pass TPP, which was signed by 11 oth­er coun­tries lined around the Pa­cific Rim, over the con­cerns of every­one from Hil­lary Clin­ton to Don­ald Trump.