Lame duck periods have historically been very quiet. Eisenhower's negotiations with the Soviet Union were derailed by the U2 incident, and while he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1960 he didn't champion it. Johnson was too unpopular to get anything big done by the time he term-limited himself. Reagan limped to the finish in the wake of Iran-Contra and Clinton in the wake of impeachment. Probably all shared some feeling of simple courtesy toward their successors as well - don't dump some big new program or policy on the President-elect. Clear the decks as much as possible; leave the next one a clean slate. Our current President is having none of that.
The most recent sign came with Leila Fadel's McClatchy report on Monday that begins "Iraqi lawmakers say the United States is demanding 58 bases as part of a proposed 'status of forces' agreement [SOFA] that will allow U.S. troops to remain in the country indefinitely." I have written previously about how Congress could lead on this. It is the branch that ratifies treaties and it is clear that a SOFA is very limited. Establishing a long term military presence that nearly doubles our current number of bases and essentially formalizes our role as an occupying power stretches its intent past the breaking point. It puts us into "looks like a duck" territory.
Another issue that refuses to go away is FISA reform. From the debate over the Protect America Act, to its passage, the excitement over its expiration and the attempt to get some kind of permanent version passed there has been a remarkable amount of lying, deception, and what can only be charitably called sloppy reporting. Of the last, the most recent came from Eric Lichtblau this week - and was quickly, comprehensively and hilariously taken apart by Glenn Greenwald. By all indications the finished product would be a major piece of legislation. The biggest sticking point has been retroactive immunity for the telecom industry. Right now lawsuits over their cooperation with government surveillance are in process, and potentially the most explosive part will not be verdicts or even testimony but discovery. At that point we will start to see just how indiscriminate and invasive the spying has been, and the public will likely be furious. Shutting them down now is a major decision and deserves a public discussion. Other aspects of FISA reform are extremely important as well. At this late date the President should not push for something to get hustled through. We are on America's clock now, not his.
Then there is Iran. James Fallows has some history of the saber rattling along with some recent rumors. For one example, last year then-CENTCOM commander William Fallon reportedly said an attack "will not happen on my watch...There are several of us trying to put the crazies back in the box." (That kind of outlook in the current administration is a good way to give your job title a "then-" prefix.) Still, Fallows' new warning is important. There have been rumblings of a surgical strike and a limited campaign, but if we have learned anything in Iraq it is that the law of unintended consequences can easily turn quick strikes into massive blowback. (This is the charitable explanation - less charitably, the consequences were intended all along, or consequences of either type were never considered.) If it is a bad idea to change horses midstream then isn't it even worse to enter the stream knowing you will have to change?
Here is an early test of Barack Obama. John McCain is on board with all the major current policies so there is no reason to expect he would object. But if Obama objects he has options. He could announce on the campaign trail that effective immediately he will repudiate any SOFA negotiated by the President unless he first gives it his blessing. (The "politics stops at the waters edge" policy was suspended on May 15th, and don't fool yourself - he was referring to Obama (via) until the criticism started.) Obama could take to the floor and lead a filibuster of any radical FISA overhaul. He could forcefully come out against strikes against Iran and promise impeachment hearings for any military action not authorized by Congress. He could short-circuit just about any grand design at this point; if push comes to shove will he?
There are already comparisons made between the high crimes and misdemeanors that got Bill Clinton impeached and the ones that will likely go unpunished with his successor. If the trend is that the former did something bad and the latter did something catastrophic then consider: The final act Bill Clinton is most remembered for as President is his pardon of Mark Rich.