President Obama has some advice for his successor — don’t strike out on your own.
Obama turned to executive actions and regulations on a number of big issues like labor, climate and immigration — where Congress had blocked his agenda. It’s something Republicans have decried. Some call the president “lawless” for going around the legislative branch.
In an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep airing on Morning Edition, Obama made it clear it’s not the approach he preferred. “My suggestion to the president-elect is, you know, going through the legislative process is always better, in part because it’s harder to undo,” Obama said.
It’s a lesson weighing on his mind as Trump’s incoming administration has vowed to reverse many of the steps Obama took through executive order and administrative rules.
“Elections mean something”
The Obama administration’s efforts to increase overtime pay, curb the carbon dioxide emissions of power plants and protect people living in the country illegally from deportation are all suddenly vulnerable.
That’s something Obama said he accepts: “If he wants to reverse some of those rules, that’s part of the democratic process. That’s, you know, why I tell people to vote — because it turns out elections mean something.”
Obama told NPR that Trump is “entirely within his lawful power” to sign new executive orders of his own. “Keep in mind, though, that my strong preference has always been to legislate when I can get legislation done. In my first two years I wasn’t relying on executive powers because I had big majorities in the Congress and we were able to get bills done, get bills passed. And even after we lost the majorities in Congress, I bent over backwards consistently to try to find compromise and a — a legislative solution to some of the big problems that we’ve got.”
Obama pointed to immigration, saying he “held off for years in taking some of the executive actions that I ultimately took in pursuit of a bipartisan solution.” He was referring to a big immigration reform package that was crafted by a bipartisan group of senators and passed the Senate in 2013, only to be stalled in the House with objections from conservatives, in particular to the “path to citizenship” that the bill would have provided for many in the country illegally.
The White House promised at the start of 2014 that it would be a “year of action” after being frustrated by Congress, particularly since 2011 when Republicans took control of the House and had enough votes in the Senate to sustain filibusters.
“I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” the president said at the time, as Republicans accused him of turning his back on bipartisan solutions.
Obama signed sweeping executive orders in 2014 that shielded millions of people living in the country illegally from facing deportation.
“If House Republicans are really concerned about me taking too many executive actions, the best solution to that is passing bills,” he said then. “Pass a bill. Solve a problem.”
In June, a deadlocked Supreme Court ruling effectively killed one of those immigration orders, which shielded about 4 million people from deportation.
Drones: “We’re getting too comfortable”
Obama also reflected in his NPR interview on the controversial decision to expand drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa.
“I’m the first one to admit that we didn’t get it all right on Day 1,” he said. “There were times where, for example with respect to drones, that I had to kind of stop the system for a second, and say, ‘You know what, we’re getting too comfortable with our ability to take kinetic strikes around the world’ without having enough process to avoid consistently the kinds of civilian casualties that can end up actually hurting us in the war against radicalization.”
The administration acknowledged in July that drone strikes in countries where the U.S. has not been engaged in ground combat have killed up to 116 civilians since Obama took office.
The president told NPR, in reference to drone strikes and surveillance by the National Security Agency, that he was confident his administration had built the “guardrails” needed to “set up a whole series of processes to guard against government overreach, to reform some practices that I thought over time would threaten civil liberties.”
Obama has issued an executive order instructing the director of national intelligence to release statistics on the use of drone strikes each year — another measure Donald Trump could overturn if he wants to.