Riveting as President-elect Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice-style cabinet selection process may be, we should not forget that President Barack Obama still has more than two weeks left in office.
Although that's not enough time for Obama to take any new legislative initiatives, his administration is already taking some important policy steps. First, he has begun his promised retaliation against Moscow for its hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the private emails of Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta. And on Dec. 28, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech emphasizing the necessity of a two-state peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians while also condemning Israel’s support for West Bank settlements which undermine the two-state solution. Kerry’s speech, which came after Obama refused to veto a United Nations Security Council demanding an end to the settlements, will not lead to concrete changes during the president’s final weeks in office. Nevertheless, it lays out parameters that Trump or other negotiators could refer back to while providing a boost to both Israeli and Palestinian peace advocates.
Beyond these actions though, Obama can still use the powers of the presidency to burnish his legacy.
Specifically, here are three steps he could take:
Pardon whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning
This would surely be the single most controversial step Obama could take in January – but he should do it anyway. For one thing, time has shown that both Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked details of U.S. intelligence-gathering programs, and Manning, serving 35 years for providing government documents to WikiLeaks, revealed widespread government overreach to the nation.
Even former Attorney General Eric Holder admitted that Snowden’s actions were a “public service,” while the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Obama’s former director of privacy and civil liberties for the White House National Security Staff have called for pardoning Snowden.
Humanitarian and fairness reasons for pardoning Snowden and Manning also exist. Manning has attempted to commit suicide twice; the UN special rapporteur on torture described Washington’s treatment of Manning as cruel, inhuman and degrading. Snowden, meanwhile, does not deserve to face a lengthy prison sentence - much less the possibility of the death penalty mentioned by Trump’s CIA director pick - given that the U.S. government itself recognized the value of Snowden’s disclosures by enacting numerous privacy reforms.
Finally, pardoning both Snowden and Manning – not to mention other less visible officials who leaked information to journalists – also allows Obama to set an important precedent. One of the few stains on Obama’s record is his administration’s widespread use of the Espionage Act against officials who released information to journalists. Given the concern that a President Trump could be tempted to abuse the vast powers of the presidency – as well his evident disdain for the media – it’s critical Obama make a strong statement on the importance of the freedom of the press.
Pardon the DACA ‘Dreamers’
In 2012 Obama issued an executive order shielding approximately 750,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation. These young immigrants – dubbed “Dreamers” – were brought to the United States as children by parents who entered the country illegally. Many have spent a majority of their lives in this country yet now - through no fault of their own – they face deportation since Trump could rescind any prior executive orders during his first day in Office.
Obama could save those granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status from the risk of deportation by simply pardoning them - something House Democrats have already asked him to do. As the House Democrats point out, “the Constitution specifically does not limit the pardon power to criminal offenses,” and even the Supreme Court has ruled that “Congress cannot interfere in any way with the president’s power to pardon.” This means Obama could still pardon the dreamers for any civil offenses.
Pardoning Dreamers would not confer legal status upon them, but would nevertheless still shield them from deportation. This could provide Republican moderates in Congress the breathing space to work out some kind of permanent fix providing a path to citizenship for the young migrants.
Obama has already deported more people than any prior president in history – the least he can do is protect the Dreamers from this fate before he leaves Office.
Restart nuclear non-proliferation cooperation with Russia
After Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) suspended cooperation with Russia’s nuclear energy company Rosatom. Given the risk that unsecured Russian nuclear materials could end up in the hands of terrorists, restarting scientist-to-scientist cooperation between DOE and Rosatom scientists is critical.
This would certainly be a controversial step, particularly given Obama’s pledge to retaliate against Russia for Moscow’s cyber-meddling in the 2016 election. Obama, though, could still pursue any cyber retaliation against Russia he chooses, and he could also make clear that allowing DOE and Rosatom to restart cooperation does not in any way imply Washington accepts Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Nevertheless, cooperation to prevent nuclear terrorism is important enough for Obama to separate it from the myriad of other issues where Moscow and Washington remain at loggerheads. Ultimately, Americans should understand that Russian-American nuclear non-proliferation cooperation is not a concession or favor for Moscow, but rather represents a core U.S. national security interest.
Furthermore, this might even be one policy Trump could support. The president-elect has made improving the relationship with Moscow a core foreign policy goal - and Obama could certainly argue that nuclear non-proliferation cooperation fits within the president-elect’s agenda. Moreover, it also aligns with Trump’s plan to focus on combating Islamic State and other extremist groups.
To be clear, reasons exist for Obama not to do any of these things. Some would be mostly symbolic. More importantly, it’s also possible that these actions could damage the surprisingly cordial relationship Obama has established with Trump, thereby damaging Obama’s attempt to lobby the president-elect to keep key provisions of Obamacare in place.
The benefits to the country outweigh these risks, however, and Obama should act boldly in his final days.
(Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union.)