Most non-Millennials know the history. Facing a sure defeat at the hands of Napoleon in 1812, the Russians retreated. As they retreated, they burned crops, destroyed bridges and successfully weakened and slowed the advancing French army. In the end, the demoralized and depleted French endured a brutal Russian winter without supplies only to face ultimate defeat.
At first glance it would seem that, taking his lesson from history, Barack Obama is attempting exactly such a tactic in the face of the overwhelming electoral condemnation his party and policies suffered in the most recent elections. The New York Times, and other papers have reported Obama’s last minute executive actions in this light. But upon closer inspection, this myth of utilitarian heroism falls away and we’re left with nothing more than a vanity-driven attempt to create a virtue-signal based political legacy.
Democrats emerged from November’s elections even more broken than they were going in, with humiliating losses in the states, a clear failure to recapture either house of Congress, and, of course, the loss of the presidency. So what does President Obama do? He has used the lamest part of his lame-duck presidency in an attempt both to cement his “legacy” and place obstacles in the path of his successor. He allowed the United Nations to condemn Israel; “permanently” banned drilling off the Atlantic coast; protected federal funding of Planned Parenthood; and condemned and sanctioned Russia for allegedly “hacking” the presidential election.
Obama’s 11th-hour executive actions and institutional directives might be seen to serve the utilitarian purpose of forcing Trump and the Republican congress to waste political capital on their revocation thus making the Republicans’ major agenda items, repeal of Obamacare, immigration and taxes that much more difficult. But, like most of the things he has done via pen and phone, many of these are relatively easily reversed by “pen and phone,” making them, for the most part, a house of cards built as a tornado approaches.
Russia has already responded to his effete sanctions with a round of deserved mockery and, with the exception of the U.N. resolution, each one of the directives can be rescinded fairly easily by the next administration whose party controls both chambers of Congress. As to the drilling ban, the Washington Post reports:
President-elect Donald Trump could counter Obama’s plan with his own five-year plan, but even so it would be years before drilling could start.
The president-elect’s authority to undo a permanent prohibition is unclear. But Congress, controlled by Republicans, could move to rescind the withdrawal of federal lands from oil and gas exploration.”
Similarly, regarding the Planned Parenthood rule, the New York Times notes:
According to the department [of Health and Human Services], repealing the rule would require a new rule-making process, or a joint resolution of disapproval by the House and Senate, with concurrence by the new president.”
Constitutional scholar Barack Obama knows all this. We are left with the conclusion that he enacted these changes with full knowledge that they would be reversed in no time at all.
None of these actions is designed to be permanent but rather to serve as the ultimate in political virtue signalling. If these agenda items were important to him he’d have spent considerably more political capital on them. He’s had eight years, two of which effectively saw him enjoying a supermajority, in which to try to enact and cement these policies legislatively. Instead, he is choosing the last hours of his presidency to “act.” Yet these actions are not intended to be permanent. They serve only to make Obama look good in the eyes of his fans as he leaves office—and, of course, to make Trump look the monster when he repeals them on Day One. Obama understands that these actions are not only symbolic, but doomed. None of that seems to matter to him, so long as the history books record that he tried.
And there lies the heart of it: the history books. The same man who won a Nobel Peace Prize for winning an election is now trying to be viewed as an environmental protector, Palestinian freedom fighter, and the Shining Knight of women’s health using a thin broth consisting of last minute abstentions and executive actions.
What may lie at the core of his actions is his belief—some would say knowledge—that he has the academy and the writers of history (or at least Buzzfeed Top 10 lists) on his side. Obama issues these proclamations secure in the knowledge that the politically Manichean culture he has buoyed during his eight years in the White House will have him painted as hero by a large and impassioned swath of the electorate. Romantic readings of his last-minute actions as grand moments in a storied movement are already underway. And since, like any good social organizer, Obama understands that it is the past that keeps changing, he is comfortable being known as the president of “what might have been.” To that end, he continues governing by intention rather than looking toward any real results.
These are not the noble actions of a retreating general using scorched earth effectively to stall an oncoming force. Instead, they are akin to an attempt by a slumlord or real-estate developer to spackle over cracks in the walls and put Bondo in holes of a crumbling building he’s trying to sell as a luxury property. If and when Trump and Congress use those same tools of pen and phone to undo many of Obama’s ersatz accomplishments, the dudgeon no doubt will be high. Not merely because of policy reversal but because they will be viewed as destroying the legacy of a would-be perfect president. His base and the mythologized history written about his presidency will mourn the future that could have been.
If only, if only.