President Obama may have given up on his signature trade legislation, but with President-elect Donald Trump waiting in the wings, White House observers say Obama still has ways to push through parts of his unfinished agenda, and might just try it.

“There are presidents who, when they are lame ducks, attempt to cement their agenda through executive actions,” said John Malcolm, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

“He doesn’t really have much time to go through the formal rulemaking process … so anything he would attempt to do would have to be in the form of executive orders,” Malcolm added.

The White House has already signaled its intention to drop the Trans Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal that Obama struggled to sell to members of his own party. He will address the fate of TPP during an economic summit this week in Peru.

But Obama could attempt to implement his other policy priorities through whatever means available in the coming nine weeks. The Democratic president has proven himself a willing executor of executive authority when Congress has obstructed his agenda in the past.

Adam Brandon, CEO of conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, said his organization has long worried about Obama’s possible use of “midnight regulations,” or policies rammed into place at the end of a president’s term.

“With this election result, a lot of what we feared, even if he does it, the ink won’t be dry before Trump could undo it all,” Brandon said.

Obama indicated Monday that he intends to forge ahead with his blueprint until the day Trump attends his inauguration. Here are seven ways Obama could try to salvage his policy plans before Jan. 20, 2017.

Syrian refugees

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Obama could approve a surge of Syrian refugees in the waning weeks of his presidency now that he can’t count on a Clinton administration to carry out his push for the resettlement of 110,000 refugees to the U.S. in 2017.

“The refugees [policy area] is where he can probably have the most permanent impact, because once you let the refugee in, we’re not going to be un-refugeeing them and sending them out,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

“So conceivably they could accelerate the arrival of Syrian refugees,” Krikorian said. “They’ve been doing that anyway by cutting short the vetting time, the time they spend screening them.”

Trump has called for the complete suspension of immigration from countries that harbor Islamic terrorists until the government can get a handle on the screening process, which Republicans have characterized as inadequate.

Labor regulations

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In May, Obama issued an executive order expanding overtime pay to millions of salaried workers.

It wasn’t the first time the president used his authority to pursue a labor-related agenda.

“The National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Labor have been incredibly aggressive in terms of enacting his agenda and, perhaps, the most aggressive department and agency under his administration,” Malcolm said.

He noted the president could still issue orders on wages, overtime hours, union rules or “card check,” an organizing tactic that gives workers an easier way to form unions.


The White House has already avoided the question of whether Obama will grant an outgoing pardon to Hillary Clinton for her alleged mishandling of classified material, and any future indictments stemming from a separate FBI inquiry into whether her family’s foundation peddled influence while she served as secretary of state.

Although there would be few policy implications attached to a Clinton pardon — aside from the precedent it would set — Obama could face a fierce backlash if he chose to spare Trump’s political rival from consequences on his way out the door.

It could also lead to other questions about whether the president would also pardon Huma Abedin, Cheryl Mills, Anthony Weiner, Terry McAuliffe and other Clinton allies who have come under scrutiny by the FBI this year for various related offenses.

Obama could theoretically use his pardon privilege for anyone he chooses. It’s an authority that has come back to haunt presidents in the past.

President Bill Clinton’s reputation took a hit when, on his way out of Washington, he pardoned major Democratic donor Marc Rich after well-paid insiders pleaded the financier’s case.


Obama has also ramped up the number of commutations, or reduced criminal sentences, he has issued in the final months of his administration.

Many have been for nonviolent drug offenses.

The president has pushed for sentencing reform legislation in Congress, but like many of his policy goals, it is unlikely to become law during the lame duck session.

Obama has commuted 944 sentences to date, more than the commutations of the 11 presidents combined.


The U.S. has a longstanding policy of opposing, in the United Nations General Assembly, any resolutions that are unfriendly to Israel.

But critics have worried that Obama could use his final weeks in office to allow the UN Security Council to vote on a resolution that creates a recognized Palestinian state or condemns Israel’s settlements on disputed land.

In September, 88 senators from both parties urged Obama to veto any “one-sided” resolution that might emerge before he leaves office.

Trump, who promised during the campaign to repair what he characterized as a damaged U.S.-Israel relationship, would not support such moves in the UN.

Guantanamo Bay

Closing Guantanamo Bay, where the U.S. detains prisoners accused of terrorism, was a key plank of Obama’s campaign platform eight years ago.

The president is unlikely to close the prison in what remains of his final term. However, he has reduced its occupants by transferring or releasing dozens of detainees, some of whom have re-joined the battlefield.

“With respect to Guantanamo, it is true that I have not been able to close the darn thing because of the congressional restrictions that have been placed on us,” Obama told reporters Monday at the White House.

“What is also true is we have greatly reduced the population. You now have significantly less than 100 people there,” he added.

Obama hinted that his administration may try to remove additional prisoners from the facility before Trump comes to town.

“There are some additional transfers that may be taking place over next the two months,” he said.

Environmental rules

Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has been active throughout his presidency in issuing rules and regulations that his White House has touted as necessities in the fight against climate change.

Businesses have frequently complained that the rules create an undue regulatory burden on even routine operations.

Defending an international climate accord recently struck in Paris against Trump’s pledge to pull out of it has already emerged as one of his lame-duck priorities. Obama could still push through environmental orders in the twilight of his presidency.

For example, the EPA has already announced steps toward new rules on methane emissions that would punish companies for methane leaks from existing oil rigs, not just new ones. Obama could attempt to finalize that rule, among others, before he leaves office.

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