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As His Final State Of Union Nears, Looking At Obama's Legacy


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This Tuesday, President Obama will speak to Congress and the American people in his final State of the Union address. Mr. Obama is expected to focus on the progress he believes he's made in domestic and international policy. Of course, what the president calls progress is often called disaster by his opponents. What accomplishments the president may point to on Tuesday could be undone by Congress or a successor in the White House. We're joined now by NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks very much for being with us.


SIMON: And will Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, continue to be the law of the land regardless of what happens in the next election?

HORSLEY: Well, what we saw this week, Scott, is that the only thing standing in the way of repealing Obamacare is the president's veto pen. The GOP lawmakers have shown they can pass a repeal measure even in the Senate with a simple majority using procedural rules to overcome a Democratic filibuster. So if there were a Republican in the White House next year and if they were to try this again they could certainly unwind the law.

Now, there are questions about whether that would be politically tenable. You'd be talking about taking insurance away from more than 17 million people. But Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail say they want to get rid of Obamacare, and if you had a Republican in the White House you could certainly do so.

SIMON: Let me ask about the executive action that President Obama took in 2014 on immigration to try and shield millions of people from deportation, even, as we must note, thousands of deportations have continued. There have been legal battles over that executive action. Could that order be overturned by a new president?

HORSLEY: Yes. Remember, this was actually the second time the president tried to use his executive power to help immigrants who were in the country illegally. Two years earlier he tried to block deportation for the so-called dreamers, that is young people who were smuggled in the country with their parents. This action might not even need a Republican president to overturn it. It's been challenged already by more than two dozen states, and it's been blocked at least for the moment by a federal appeals court. We expect this case to be heard by the Supreme Court, and we might know its fate by this summer. The administration, though, says it's just exercising its prosecutorial discretion. So if you had a new president with different priorities, he or she could certainly decide to go in a different direction. And that wouldn't necessarily mean deporting millions of people. Obviously, there'd be practical problems with that. But it could mean millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally have to say in the shadows.

SIMON: Scott, stay with us because we want to bring in Christopher Joyce, a correspondent of course in our science desk, and how convenient you should be here for this conversation, Chris, thanks.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: I'm always glad to be here for this conversation.

SIMON: Thanks very much. There was an agreement on climate change deal this past month and the president argued that it could be ratified by executive action. Could this be rolled back?

JOYCE: The White House is betting no. The legal argument is this - there's a treaty existing already. It was signed in 1992, ratified by the Senate, signed by George H. W. Bush. That was about climate, and they were nonspecific promises by the U.S. to lower greenhouse gases. The argument is Paris is simply implementing that treaty. Paris is not a new treaty. The U.S. delegation also did some padding in this Paris treaty to insulate it from attack. The Paris treaty has two parts. One part is legally binding - rather mundane stuff about record-keeping, that sort of thing. The second part is not legally binding, and that's where the heavy-duty stuff is - the promise to put money into a $100 billion a year fund to help developing countries and the targets that the U.S. is promising to lower its emissions. That's, they say, not legally binding, so no necessity for ratification or approval by Congress. The flaw here, or the fly in the ointment if you will, is that the $100 billion promise requires money. And Congress writes the checks. So that's where the fight is likely to happen. One other thing is that a subsequent president of course could pull out of the whole thing. President Obama says not likely the whole world will sign onto this. That would look pretty bad.

SIMON: The president also announced an aggressive plan over the summer to cut coal plant emissions. Is that here to stay?

JOYCE: That's going to end up - but it's already in the courts, in fact. I mean, the ink wasn't even dry on this last year when 27 states sued to overturn it and as well as many industry groups. Now, the argument in defense of it is that the Supreme Court has already heard a case involving the right of the EPA to limit greenhouse gases, and the EPA won that case. So there are some legal precedent that says that the EPA and the government can do this through regulation. Again, a new president could rescind those regulations or simply decide not to enforce them.

SIMON: Chris Joyce, thanks so much, and also conveniently, Michele Kelemen, our State Department correspondent's in the studio. Thanks so much for being with us, Michele.


SIMON: Let me ask about Iran and Cuba. Diplomatic ties have been restored by the Obama administration between the U.S. and Cuba. Embassies have reopened. Any going back on this?

KELEMEN: You know, even critics have told me they think the train has left the station on Cuba because of those restored diplomatic ties. President Obama's likely to spend a lot of this year further easing travel and trade restrictions in hopes that, you know, if more Americans go there, if more American companies are invested in Cuba, there will be a strong constituency to stay the course. Of course, that depends on Cuba allowing U.S. companies in, and it's been slow on that front. And Cuba's continuing poor human rights record is also quite a challenge. And I expect the next president could come in and be much tougher on Cuba on those issues.

SIMON: And the Iran deal - we're coming up on what's called implementation day, which means...

KELEMEN: That's the day that international inspectors decide that Iran's done enough to curb its nuclear program to deserve a lot of promised sanctions relief. Secretary of State John Kerry said this week that this could be days away. It doesn't mean that American businesses are going to rush into Iran, but it does mean that Europeans and many others can and will. So it's going to be tough for the next U.S. president to dramatically change course unless Iran really breaks the deal, goes back on its promises to curb its nuclear program. The next president could, though, try to build up pressure again on Iran on other issues, such as the ballistic missile tests that violate U.N. Security Council resolutions. In fact, we're already seeing Republicans and even some Democrats on Capitol Hill moving on that.

SIMON: Michele Kelemen, thanks so much. And, Scott Horsley, let me turn to you. Finally, President Obama this week outlined executive actions he wanted to take about guns. Obviously, this puts him on a direct collision course with a number of people in Congress, not to mention the NRA. Would his executive action stand in a new administration?

HORSLEY: Not necessarily. The president says he's simply offering guidance on how to interpret existing law. A different president could offer a very different interpretation if he or she wanted to. As with all these issues, Scott, and the president himself said soon after taking office, elections have consequences.

SIMON: Thanks so much, NPR's Scott Horsley.

HORSLEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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