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

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

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

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

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.

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