HONOLULU (AP) — His last presidential vacation behind him, Barack Obama is entering the closing stretch of his term, an eleventh-hour push to tie up loose ends and put finishing touches on his legacy before handing the reins to President-elect Donald Trump.
Obama returns to Washington at midday Monday from Hawaii with less than three weeks remaining in his presidency. His final days in office will largely be consumed by a bid to protect his endangered health care law, a major farewell speech and the ongoing handover of power to Trump.
His speech planned for his hometown of Chicago, on Jan. 10 is expected to be his closing message to the nation, and will be open to the public, according to a notice sent to Obama alumni and obtained by The Associated Press. The trip will likely be Obama's last outside Washington as president and will include a "family reunion" for Obama's former campaign staffers.
Obama is also planning last-minute commutations and pardons, White House officials said, in line with his second-term effort to cut sentences for inmates given unduly harsh sentences for drug crimes. Though prominent offenders like former government contractor Edward Snowden and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich are also asking for leniency, Obama's final acts of clemency are expected to continue to focus on drug offenders whose plight he tried — but failed — to address through criminal justice reform.
After taking office eight years ago, Obama and his aides were effusive in their praise for how Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, helped his team take over the massive bureaucracy that is the federal government. Obama has vowed to pass on the favor to Trump.
"The smooth transition of power is chief among priorities," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.
But the transition hasn't been without incident.
The two teams have clashed over the Trump staff's requests for information that Obama aides fear could be used to identify and eliminate government employees who worked on Obama priorities like climate change and minority rights overseas. Trump's team, meanwhile, has been frustrated by Obama's attempts in the final days to box Trump in with parting moves to block ocean drilling, declare new monuments and further empty out the Guantanamo Bay prison.
While on his annual vacation in Oahu, Obama asserted himself forcefully on two foreign policy issues that put him in direct conflict with Trump. Obama directed the U.S. to defy tradition by allowing passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution criticizing Israel on settlements, then slapped Russia with sweeping penalties over U.S. allegations of hacking against the U.S. political process.
Trump sided with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the first case and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the second. He's vacillated between praising Obama for how he's handled the transition, and criticizing him over it on Twitter.
The final days are Obama's last chance to define his presidency before he loses the bully pulpit and cedes his legacy to historians. For Obama, helping Americans understand how his two terms have reshaped American life is even more critical amid concerns that Trump may undo much of what he accomplished, including the health law.
As Trump and Republicans vow to gut the Affordable Care Act, Democrats are working to devise a strategy to protect the law by exploiting GOP divisions. Some Republicans want to strip out unpopular "Obamacare" provisions while leaving major parts intact, while others prefer a start-from-scratch approach.
To that end, Obama will travel Wednesday to the Capitol to meet with House and Senate Democrats, likely his last such session with his party's lawmakers as president.
His administration is also working feverishly to finish up regulations in the pipeline that Obama hopes can be completed in the final days, perhaps increasing the likelihood his policies carry over. But the closer it gets to Trump's inauguration, the harder those tasks become.
Though Obama remains president until Jan. 20, the White House can't process the departure of all its staffers on a single day. So this week Obama aides will start "offloading," turning in their Blackberries and shutting down their computers for the last time, leaving a smaller staff on hand for the final days.
Obama must also prepare to become a private citizen for the first time in two decades. An office of the former president must be established, and Obama and his family will be making arrangements to move into a rental home in Northwest Washington where they plan to stay until their youngest daughter, Sasha, finishes high school.
The Obamas have long lamented how the presidency denied them normal freedom and privacy, with first lady Michelle Obama likening the White House to "a really nice prison." But on his last Hawaii vacation, Obama took time out with his family to visit Breakout Waikiki, where visitors are "trapped" in a room together and must try, as a team, to escape.
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