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Lame duck President Obama faces 'hostile takeover' of White House

With the U.S. election over, the lame duck label now applies to Obama and Congress. What will they do before the keys to the White House are handed over to Donald Trump? Here's a to-do list.

In the coming weeks, Barack Obama will work on transferring power to someone who vows to erase his legacy

U.S. President Barack Obama and president-elect Donald Trump shake hands following their meeting in the Oval Office on Nov. 10, 2016. Trump has promised to undo key policies of the Obama administration once he takes over in January. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Barack Obama is in the final days of his presidency, and while he plans on taking a vacation after he hands the keys to the White House to Donald Trump on Jan. 20, he says he's not coasting to the finish line.

"My instructions to my team are that we run through the tape. We make sure that we finish what we started, that we don't let up in these last couple of months," Obama said at a news conference Monday.

The term "lame duck president" — referring to the period between the election and inauguration of the president-elect — now officially applies to Obama. Congress, too, just started its own lame duck session.

So how much can really get done in Washington before the new players take over?

Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate returned to Washington Monday after an election break with a few important items on the agenda before they wrap for the year on Dec. 17 — namely, keeping government funded.

No vote on TPP expected

A stopgap budget bill expires on Dec. 9. Lawmakers have to decide whether to pass another short-term funding extension to continue government spending or to try to negotiate something longer term.

Congress is also considering whether to extend the Iran Sanctions Act, which expires at the end of December. There is also a massive and contentious military policy bill on the table.

Another bill under discussion would increase funding for medical research, thereby supporting Vice-President Joe Biden's cancer moonshot initiative. If passed, it would be hailed as a bipartisan success and would greatly please the White House.

Obama's first face-to-face meeting with Trump came within 48 hours of the election. The president repeatedly expressed his commitment to providing a smooth transition of power. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

But Congress doesn't have time to do it all, and unfortunately for Obama, some of his priorities are off the table.

Last spring, when Obama chose Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to have a nomination hearing. Members argued the choice should be up to the next president. Now that Trump has won, Garland is out of luck.

The other major disappointment for Obama is the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. He had hoped to win approval for the 12-nation pact during this lame duck session, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed after the election there would be no vote on it.

Trump opposes the deal and has likened it to "a rape" of the United States.

The TPP — of which Canada is also a signatory — is one of many initiatives overseen by Obama that Trump has vowed to discard.

Trump has also promised to reverse every executive action taken by Obama, including major ones on immigration and gun control. He has pledged to repeal "Obamacare," the Affordable Care Act, which is the president's legacy legislation. And he's vowed to renounce the Iranian nuclear deal, another of Obama's signature achievements.

Transitioning power to Trump must be "devastating" for Obama, given that the president-elect intends to erase much of what he did over the past eight years, said Daniel Franklin, an associate professor at Georgia State University and author of Pitiful Giants: Presidents in their Final Terms.

Period of nostalgia and poignancy

"There are friendly takeovers and hostile takeovers and this is the classic hostile takeover because Trump is basically going to wipe out the Obama legacy," Franklin said.

Despite that, and the deep personal animosity between the two, Obama welcomed Trump to the White House within 48 hours of last week's election to kick off face-to-face transition talks.

Franklin said lame duck periods for presidents are typically sad times, full of nostalgia and reflection. They are particularly difficult when the opposing party wins the election.

"Even if Obama is well-centred and shows a lot of class and doesn't seem to be affected by this, there has got to be a tremendous amount of poignancy in the White House right now," said Franklin.

Obama pauses during a news conference held at the White House earlier this week. He says he has no plans to 'let up' during his final days in office. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Obama has repeatedly expressed his commitment to a smooth transition of power and he appears focused on that, rather than discussion of any major policy steps he intends to take before exiting the Oval Office.

In the dying days of their presidencies, lame duck presidents might write new executive orders, issue presidential pardons, and embark on foreign trips to try and wield influence while they still have the chance. They might also aggressively push Congress to pass legislation to shore up their legacies; some take measures designed to embarrass their successor. 

Franklin said he doesn't expect any "last minute-shenanigans" this time around. "It's not in Obama's nature," he said.

No firewall measures

White House press secretary Josh Earnest indicated Obama intends to stay the course.

"President Obama will remain in office and will be the president of the United States until Jan. 20, and we will pursue policies accordingly," he said at a recent daily briefing.

Earnest was asked if the administration will try and put up some kind of firewall to protect against Trump's efforts to gut its accomplishments.

"There's no specific thing that I have in mind that we're going to do differently now," he responded.

Indeed, Obama is carrying on with his usual activities. He spent part of last weekend on the golf course, as he often does, and then set off on what is expected to be his last foreign trip on Monday.

Before leaving for Greece, Germany and Peru, he told reporters he's proud that he and his team are leaving without significant scandal. But he acknowledged they made mistakes.

"One of the mottos I always had with my staff was better is good," Obama said. "Perfect is unattainable, better is possible."

About the Author

Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multi-platform reporter with CBC in Toronto. She previously worked in CBC's Washington bureau and covered the 2016 election. Prior to heading south of the border Meagan worked in CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She has also reported for CBC from Hong Kong. Follow her on Twitter @fitzpatrick_m

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