Obama Goes Out With A Few Last Jabs

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 3-

This week:

  • The Trump era begins
  • Obama’s major last-minute policy changes
  • Ohio’s Senate race worth watching

Trump administration

Trump’s first days: Friday is Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day — and it will be a very big day for U.S. policy in general.

Trump promised to undo much of President Obama’s legacy, he won’t have that hard a time, as so much of it was done with a phone and a pen. This is the downside of governing by executive order: Most of what a president does in this way can be easily undone, some of it undone with more difficulty. Trump has decided to attend fewer inaugural balls than his recent predecessors in the interest of getting to work more quickly on undoing it.

Ever since Reagan, the first act of each Republican president has been to reinstate the Mexico City Policy, which bans funding of non-governmental organizations abroad to pay for or promote abortion. Of course, it will be important to watch whether Trump does this (he likely will) but not all changes are as easily implemented as that one.

Trump has promised many things, including the immediate proposal of at least one constitutional Amendment and a number of bills whose future in Congress would be uncertain. But his quick seven-point plan, for executive action, billed as actions “to protect American workers,” is likely to attract the most attention.

This includes most consequentially the labeling of China as a “currency manipulator,” an announcement of his intention to renegotiate NAFTA, withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the reopening of oil and gas exploration on federal lands, and immediate approval of energy infrastructure projects like the Keystone Pipeline.

Trump has also sent clear signals that he will attempt to open up talks for a new free trade agreement with the United Kingdom — a means of triangulating himself on that issue. Many mainstream and nearly all conservative economists, who fret over the cans of worms Trump plans to open on trade, will be watching this closely, as it presents a good opportunity to make up for opportunities for both importers and exporters that might be lost elsewhere. In the meantime, Trump will work during the early months of his presidency to prove that indeed a U.S. president intent on negotiating a better deal can in fact do so.

This will be one of the most closely-watched questions in Trump’s early presidency, in particular for those “Trump Democrats” in the Midwest who voted for him in large part based on his unorthodox positions on international trade.

The other important question will probably be answered within just a few days: Whom will Trump nominate to the Supreme Court to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia? Conservatives will be watching closely and nervously, but all expectations are that he will nominate someone with whom they will be pleased — someone from the list of potential nominees that he put forward during the election season.

Obama’s sabotage: There are some rather flagrant examples where outgoing presidents have tried to sabotage their successors. It’s hard to think of any that go beyond President Obama’s last-minute reorganization of U.S. foreign policy.

The U.S. decision to abstain from a key anti-Israel resolution at the UN — which may have been brought forward with encouragement from Obama’s State Department — seemed well-timed for Obama’s last days. The same could be said of his abrupt, last-second decision to end the wet-foot dry-foot policy, by which refugees from communist Cuba were able to seek asylum in the U.S. by virtue of reaching its shores.

One of the more odious (and more easily reversible) elements of Obama’s change is a new policy of refusing asylum to Cuban doctors who are forced by the Castro regime to travel and provide services abroad as a tool for improving the oppressive Cuban regime’s standing and relations in the Third World.

This decision has so many old ideological undertones that it is hard to separate the Obama now leaving office from the Obama who complained about America’s anti-communist interventions in Latin America during the Cold War. His new policy of normalizing relations with Cuba may have already helped Raul Castro’s regime to survive the death of its founder, Fidel Castro, without the difficulty one might have otherwise expected.

A stark reminder of the Cuban state’s continued totalitarian nature came when Raul threw a fit over being asked real questions at a joint press conference with Obama. He is not used to taking questions from a free press, nor is he interested in ever doing so on a regular basis. The Cuban regime, which has run a once-prosperous country into ruin, has also stepped up religious persecution of certain sects, yet another sign that Obama’s policy is only emboldening the regime and making things worse.

But of course, the most egregious fact about this and all the other changes (including a set of last-second auto-emissions rules and a ban on drilling for oil in the Arctic) is not Obama has done this, but the fact that it comes at the 11th hour and 59th minute of a dying presidency.

It’s one thing to jab your predecessor with some unreasonable new rules about arsenic in water, as Bill Clinton did to George W. Bush. It’s another entirely to attempt to destroy international trust and weaken one’s posture toward an enemy like Cuba’s communist regime at the last second. One would think (as with the Israel resolution) that if Obama really thought this was good policy, he would have done it long ago and lived with the consequences himself. Instead, he will push the consequences forward.

It’s a bit worrisome, really, what else Obama might do in his final days. Having lost for his party the trust of the American electorate, he is now like a cornered wild animal, and perhaps therefore at the most dangerous point of his presidency.

‘Deliver us from Trump’: Democrats promised to put up a serious fight against President-elect Trump’s nominees. Instead, the confirmation hearings last week mostly devolved into sessions in which they begged the nominees to be at least a little bit different from Trump.

This offered them an ideal opportunity to express their independence. It also set the tone for confirmations that are quite nearly inevitable.

The best example was Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., Trump’s choice to head the CIA. He said that even if ordered by the president he would not implement any enhanced interrogation technique not in the current Army Field Manual. He also stated flatly — as Trump now finally has — that intelligence clearly suggests the Russians did hack the Democratic Party, and that it was “aggressive action taken by senior leadership inside of Russia.”

A similar dynamic played out in hearings with James Mattis for Secretary of Defense and John Kelly for Secretary of Homeland Security (who promised there would be no “Muslim registry” or other government effort to track people based on religion or ethnicity).

Lacking any senatorial power to block Trump’s nominees — thanks to their own “nuclear option” — or any way of launching serious investigations from the congressional minority, their best way of affecting policy in the new administration is to keep up constructive relationships with Trump’s executive appointees. To some extent — perhaps greater rather than smaller — this means buttering them up. It’s all they have left.

Senate 2016

Ohio: The Buckeye State, for now, is all alone in our second tier of Senate races. This is a state where Trump won quite convincingly (by eight points), but not in a double-digit landslide.

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, as custom demands, has publicly renounced any interest in the 2020 presidential race. That obviously should not be taken seriously, but there’s no question he is running for re-election in 2018.

The early Republican frontrunner for the nomination to face him is state Treasurer Josh Mandel, who won the Club for Growth endorsement in 2012 and (based on their early activity) seems likely to win it again. If Mandel manages to clear the field , he would force a rematch of the 2012 Senate election, where he kept the score reasonably close (just over five points) considering that it was a terrible Republican presidential year and Brown was then considered a fairly popular senator — the kind who has a connection with the average Trump Democrat.

This time, very early polling (albeit from a Republican pollster) shows Mandel begins with a statistically insignificant one-point lead. A race like this one is not a gimmee, but to trail in any poll or fall below 45 percent (Brown clocked in at 39) is really not a good sign for a two-term incumbent like Brown.

Even spotting Brown a few points to make up for the fact that this is a Republican poll, it isn’t hard to imagine any senator in the low 40s getting swept away in a good Republican year. On the other side of the coin, Mandel’s chances would be significantly worse amid a Trump backlash along the lines of the 2010 Obama backlash or a 2006 Bush backlash.

Still, in an environment where the midterm narrative is more ambiguous (say, more like 1998 or 2002), with a smaller and slightly more Republican electorate than what turned out in 2012 or 2016, Brown would be fortunate to survive. And the state Democratic Party behind him looks weaker than it has in decades after Trump’s resounding victory. They have now been shut out of all constitutional statewide offices for two consecutive midterm elections, and then they lost the state’s electoral votes by the largest margin since 1988 in what was supposed and forecasted to be a close race.

The Ohio Senate race might not be the best Republican pickup opportunity, but it is definitely a race to watch going forward.