Obama Warns Trump Against Relying On Executive Power

Dec 19, 2016
Originally published on December 19, 2016 7:51 pm

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.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Obama is going through a presidential transition unlike any other. Granted, his transition to power was dramatic during economic crisis. Now, he hands off to a president-elect who pledged to reverse much of his legacy.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Amid all of this, the president set for an exit interview late last week. He sat in the White House cabinet room by a fireplace draped with Christmas decorations. We talked for nearly an hour about hacking during the election, as we heard on Friday, and much more. Many of the president's accomplishments came through executive actions, to the fury of Republicans who blocked him in Congress. Now, the immense power of the presidency will be turned over to a man who is not known for restraining himself.

Should President-elect Trump, once he's inaugurated, use his executive powers in the same way that you have?

BARACK OBAMA: I think that he is entirely within his lawful power to do so. 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 legislative solution to some of the big problems that we've got, a classic example being immigration reform, where I held off for years in taking some of the executive actions that I ultimately took in pursuit of a bipartisan solution - one that, by the way, did pass through the Senate on a bipartisan basis with our help. I was very proud of that.

I went out of my way to make sure our help was behind the scenes so that Republicans didn't feel as if it was going to hurt them politically. At the end of the day, John Boehner and the House Republicans couldn't pull the trigger on getting it done. And it was only then, after we had exhausted efforts for bipartisan reform, that we took some additional steps on - on immigration executive actions. So 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.

INSKEEP: Acting on his own, President Obama gave temporary legal status to people who were brought to the United States illegally as children. And then there's President Obama's Clean Power Plan, which fights climate change and was done through regulation, not written into law. The custodian of these and other initiatives will now be Donald Trump.

OBAMA: That doesn't mean, though, that he is not going to come in and look at the various agencies and see the rules we've passed. And 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.

INSKEEP: And this election means even more because the presidency, as has been widely noted, is so powerful. It's grown more powerful over generations. You used your power in certain ways and even in ways that you'd suggest in the past might be beyond - beyond your authority.

OBAMA: Well, no, I don't think I've done that.

INSKEEP: If I'm thinking of immigration, for example.

OBAMA: Well, what I - what I said with immigration reform was that I couldn't simply sign a document that legalized 11 million people who had come here illegally and were currently undocumented. What I could do is find categories of people where we could not prioritize as significant risks. But what I always said was we couldn't solve the basic problem of these folks being in the shadows without legislation.

INSKEEP: After he deferred deporting people brought us children, the president was asked if he could protect the parents of citizens, too. He expressed his doubts, then later tried to do it before being blocked in the courts.

The question for me is, has the presidency become too powerful, in your view?

OBAMA: I distinguish between domestic policy and foreign policy.

INSKEEP: On foreign policy, Obama's answer is maybe, yes, the president does have too much power. He spent the entire time that he was in office sending American troops into battle in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and beyond. It's all been done without much input from Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OBAMA: Congress starts feeling pretty comfortable with just having the president do all this stuff and not really having to weigh in. So for example, we're still operating in our fight against ISIL without a new congressional authorization. It's the authorization that dates back to 9/11. And - and I think that is an area that we have to worry about.

The president and the executive branch are always going to have greater latitude and greater authority when it comes to protecting America because sometimes you just have to respond quickly and not everything that is a danger can be publicized and be subject to open debate, but there have to be some guardrails.

And what we've had to do on things like drones or the NSA or a number of the tools that we use to penetrate terrorist networks, what we've had to do is to build this - the guardrails internally - essentially 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.

You know, there are some critics on the left who would argue we haven't gone far enough on that. I would argue that we've gotten it about right, although I'll - I'm the first one to admit that we didn't get it all right on day one. 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.

INSKEEP: In our talk, the outgoing executive says he is also concerned about the president's use of power at home. President Obama's critics said he acted far too much through regulations which are meant to put laws into action. The president says he agrees. He'd rather that a president not do that too much.

OBAMA: I think that what's happened that I do worry about is that Congress has become so dysfunctional that more and more of a burden is placed on the agencies to fill in the gaps. And the gaps get bigger and bigger because they're not constantly refreshed and tweaked. Let's go back to something like the Affordable Care Act.

I could not be prouder of the fact that the uninsured rate has never been lower, that 20 million people have health insurance that we didn't have before. But I said when the bill passed that it wasn't perfect. Over the course of six years of implementing a very complicated piece of legislation that affects one-sixth of the economy that there were going to be things we learned that would allow us to improve it.

And I don't know how many times I've said to Republicans, both publicly and privately, in State of the Union speeches and on - in town halls around the country, that if they're willing to engage and work with me, then we can identify ways to tweak and improve this system so that more people have health insurance and it works even better and it's more stable and build on the things that seemed to have worked - for example, the fact that we've actually slowed the growth of health care costs since the bill passed.

And in each - each time I've said this, the basic Republican response has been, no, all we want to do is repeal it, and we'll replace it with something later. And they're still saying that now post-election.

INSKEEP: Which is one irony of this presidential transition. Republicans insisted for years that the president must work through Congress, however hostile or dysfunctional it might be. Now, it is up to Republicans, in charge of Congress and the White House, to work through that same process.

OBAMA: The bottom line is, if you want to right-size executive power relative to the other branches of government, the best way to do that is to have a healthy Congress in which the two parties are debating, disagreeing, but also occasionally working together to pass legislation.

INSKEEP: President Obama just over a month before leaving office Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.