On his way out of Washington, President Obama will leave his successor a number of politically perilous parting gifts and force the next White House occupant to make highly controversial moves quickly on immigration, the fight against terrorism and other key issues.
Two of Mr. Obama’s most notable recent steps — executive action on immigration and requesting new, formal authorization to wage war on the Islamic State — come with three-year time frames, meaning the next president, in the first 12 months of his or her tenure, will have to decide what to do with divisive leftover policies.
Mr. Obama’s request for authorization for use of military force (AUMF) against the Islamic State would expire three years after it is passed by Congress, while the November 2014 immigration move grants a reprieve from deportation and legal work permits to illegal immigrants for 36 months.
Other Obama policies, such as extensions of the Department of Education’s waiver program to states, freeing them from the No Child Left Behind school law, also are set to expire early in the successive administration, meaning the next president will be faced with a consequential decision on education within a year of taking office.
With each of those policies, and the time frames associated with them, political specialists say Mr. Obama is trying to appear as if he’s getting things done while simultaneously putting pressure on Congress to do what he wants, such as on immigration.
But with Congress deadlocked on immigration and struggling to pass Mr. Obama’s war authorization, much of the real pressure will fall to the 45th president, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has written on presidential leadership.
“They have a short window on these things to make it look like there’s something being done but that it’s a temporary solution,” he said. “But it’s certainly a major political bind for the next president, because often what you’ve got are rules changes that benefit [a certain group]. It does create a political quandary for the next office holder.”
Mr. Obama’s executive action on immigration — which now is in limbo after a federal judge deemed it unconstitutional — is perhaps the best example of a policy that benefits a specific group and, subsequently, will put the next commander in chief in a tough spot.
If the courts allow the administration to temporarily suspend deportations for a large segment of the illegal immigrant population, Mr. Obama’s successor would have to decide whether to scrap the policy and ramp up deportations. Such a decision would be especially difficult for a Republican president, as the GOP already is in a deep political hole with Hispanic voters.
For that reason and others, Mr. Obama has reassured supporters that the policy will stand through the next White House administration.
“It’s true, theoretically, [that] a future administration could do something that I think would be very damaging. It’s not likely, politically, that they reverse everything we’ve done,” Mr. Obama said at a town hall meeting in December.
The most obvious offramp from the president’s immigration action is new legislation on Capitol Hill, though that appears unlikely with Mr. Obama and his veto pen still in the White House and Republicans in charge of both the House and Senate.
Congress also has yet to grant the president the three-year authority he seeks to battle the Islamic State. The time frame would force the next president to decide sometime in late 2017 or early 2018 whether to request an extension or potentially wind down America’s military action.
Some specialists say the three-year provision clearly has political undertones and, to some degree, is a public relations initiative by the administration rather than a genuine belief the mission will be accomplished in three years.
It also demonstrates Mr. Obama’s desire to not be painted as a commander in chief who, on his own, dragged the U.S into another war, said Charles Dunlap, a retired Air Force general and executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University School of Law.
“The administration’s proposal for a three-year AUMF limit is certainly much about partisan politics — they have often bragged about ending what they call the ‘forever war’ — but also reflects their ideological opposition to expansive executive power,” he said. “In truth, the ‘war’ will end when the threat ends, and I don’t see that happening in three years.”
There are other instances, however, where the administration clearly wants to leave the next president with as little power as possible.
In a recent interview with Reuters, Mr. Obama promised to make a final decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline before leaving office.
Officials also want to finalize as much of the president’s controversial climate change agenda as possible over the next two years.
“One of the main focuses of the White House right now is to make sure that the administration is coordinated so that the entire breadth of the climate action plan can be basically realized before the president leaves office,” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said last week in an interview with The Hill newspaper.