Since Election Day, President Barack Obama has appointed 56 people to boards, commissions and offices in the hopes that they remain in those posts for years to come.
He has reduced the prison sentences of 79 federal inmates. He has handed out the nation’s highest civilian honor to 21 people who he said personally made an impact on his life.
And he has churned out rules, regulations and policies several times a week.
Obama is trying to put the people and policies in place that he wants to outlast his presidency in the final weeks before Donald Trump takes over. And his supporters want more, way more.
Every president tries to push through last-minute policies before their time in office comes to a close. But this year has a more frantic feel as special interest groups push Obama to do more, not just because the president-elect is of a different party but because few people know what he will do.
“People are, as you can imagine, they are getting quite desperate,” said Rena Steinzor, a member of the Center for Progressive Reform, a liberal advocacy group, who is pressing Obama to act. “Filling boards and doing whatever he can to establish protections that Trump would have to unwind is a good strategy.”
With six weeks remaining, their to-do list for Obama is long:
They want him to issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political donations. They want him to pardon immigrants in the country illegally and direct federal employees to quickly process applications for immigrants who came into the United States illegally as children. And they want him to make good on his campaign pledge to close the prison for suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay.
No one disputes that Obama has the authority to do what he is doing, but Trump supporters don’t think he should be doing them anyway.
“There’s a few weeks left. The voters have spoken,” said Diane Katz, a senior research fellow in regulatory policy at the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. “Someone who is more humble or respectful might say they made a choice a different than me and allow the new administration to do it.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest pushed back on that notion, saying Obama is president until Jan. 20 and that the administration is engaged in “a continuous and persistent effort to complete the work that’s already been started.”
In the last month since Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, Obama has:
▪ Appointed people to a slew of boards and commissions, including the American Battle Monuments Commission, United States Air Force Academy’s Board of Visitors, the Pacific Salmon Commission and National Council on Disability. Some are new appointments, some are renewals.
▪ Granted a record number of commutations to federal inmates as part of an initiative announced in 2014 to reduce the sentences of non-violent drug dealers to a sentence they likely would have gotten under today’s more lenient sentencing guidelines.
▪ Awarded the Presidential Medals of Freedom to 21 more recipients, which pushed him to a record number for his tenure, to “folks who have helped make me who I am.”
▪ Finalized rules to determine whether schools were succeeding or failing under the sweeping the Every Student Succeeds Act; released the next five-year plan for offshore oil and gas leasing, which blocks drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic; and denied a permit for a pipeline to run through North Dakota, a victory for local Native Americans.
“It’s his job,” said Carmel Martin, a former Obama appointee who is now executive vice president of policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “I think it’s ... not just appropriate but necessary for the current president to keep moving forward. President Obama is trying to leave the house in good working order.”
Trump won’t be able to reverse Obama’s actions easily.
Sure he can change Obama’s executive actions with a quick stroke of the pen. But rule changes require justification following a Reagan-era court case mandating that regulation changes aren’t done on a whim. Many of the appointments could outlast Obama and Trump because the terms are five to seven years and require Senate confirmation.
“When the new president gets in there and sees what it takes to change – or has to pay the price to change it – it may take longer,” said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University who wrote the book “Overreach” analyzing presidential leadership during the Obama presidency.
Still, Obama needs to be careful he doesn’t push out last-minute actions subject to a rarely used law, Congressional Review Act, designed to prevent so-called midnight regulations.
House Republicans recently sent a letter to Obama administration officials – similar to a request in 2008 – asking that they not try to push new regulations before leaving office.
Some of the special interest groups pushing Obama know that whatever he does could end up in court but they don’t mind because at least that provides a chance at maintaining the action. “If you don’t even try, you don’t get there,” Steinzor said. “People are saying ‘see you court.’”