Obama's Legacy Is Proving Far Harder To Erase Than Trump Imagined

Campaign promises are meeting governing realities, and realities are winning.
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

It wasn’t quite in the league of predicting the Dow would hit 36,000 months before the dot-com bubble burst, but when New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait unveiled his book on Barack Obama’s enduring legacy shortly before Donald Trump’s election, it seemed ― for lack of a better term ― poorly timed.

Trump, after all, was not just running to undo Obama’s record. He embodied, in many ways, the antithesis of the former president: brash, not particularly interested in policy detail and prone to push societal pressure points. When Chait stood by his premise, the internet, that unforgiving beast, let him have it. Ben Domenech, writing for the conservative National Review, called it “an author’s nightmare” to “have your book arrive just as its central thesis is dashed against the sharp rocks of reality.” Other conservatives indulged in similar schadenfreude, treating the book as prima facie evidence of liberalism’s aloofness.

“It was so completely taken for granted that Trump would completely wipe away the Obama presidency that the existence of this book was itself a punchline,” Chait recalled. “It was like, ‘You poor, sad man.’”

Months later, Chait looks far more prescient. Though Trump is president and Republicans control both houses of Congress, the Obama legacy, to an unexpected degree, has endured.

The failed effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, after a seven-year commitment to that principle, was just the latest sign of this. Trump has left the president’s signature foreign policy achievement ― the Iran nuclear deal ― in place. He’s offered no indication of a serious desire to undo the thawing of relations with Cuba, either. Though he has weakened workplace protections for the LGBTQ community, he has largely accepted the advancements made on gay rights, and publicly declared same-sex marriage settled law. He has indicated a desire to undo Dodd-Frank regulatory reform. But a wholesale overhaul no longer seems to be a pressing priority. He’s taken a hard-line stance on immigration while still preserving Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program ― a protection for the so-called Dreamers that Trump had pledged to ax. He’s introduced harsh new screening guidelines for refugees but has found his attempts rebuffed by the courts so far.

There are areas, of course, where major breaks have occurred: the authorization of the Keystone pipeline and the scuttling of the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, to name a few. But on matters like infrastructure investment and lowering prescription drug prices, Trump seems more likely to adhere to Obama’s legacy than depart from it.

Veterans of the past administration say they aren’t particularly surprised. Though the Obama legislative portfolio may not have been particularly popular in the moments of passage, officials always felt comfortable in its longevity. Legislative progress, they figured, is as tough to unravel as it is to put together primarily because it shifts the voters’ frame for the role government plays.

“I always believed that the Affordable Care Act was going to be harder to get rid of than Republicans and the pundit class thought post-election because it is harder to take a benefit away than to give it,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s longtime adviser. “We are seeing that, despite Trump winning, the terms of the political debate have turned in Obama’s direction. The debate going forward is how to give people health care and the problem is conservatives don’t have an argument.”

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The notion that Trump would move swiftly and effectively to erase the Obama legacy was far-fetched to begin with. Every opposition-party presidential candidate campaigns on undoing the past administration’s record only to find that the intricacies of governance don’t lend themselves to that vision.

Barack Obama himself didn’t close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, or fully end the war in Iraq, or undo all of George W. Bush’s tax cuts that he pledged to undo, or break apart the centralization of executive power in the manner he described while on the campaign trail.

And yet, Obama’s struggle to scale back Bush-ism was different than the challenges Trump is confronting.

On the foreign policy front, at least, Obama was often tripped up by divided government or geopolitical realities, while Trump appears to have essentially accepted the practicality of keeping the Iran deal in place and letting relations with Cuba continue to improve.

“On our second full day in office we rolled back the executive order on torture and rendition and on the first day there was the now-infamous executive order on GITMO,” recalled Ned Price, a former national security spokesman for the Obama administration. “It wasn’t like it was empty campaign rhetoric. In this case, there was a lot said on the campaign trail and it was divorced from the reality of governing.”

Domestically, Trump has used executive action more aggressively to undo Obama-era gains. He’s rolled back federal standards for schools, rescinded requirements that top federal contractors disclose labor violations, reopened the Justice Department’s use of private prisons, and reversed a rule that prohibited some people with mental health problems from buying guns.

And then there are the changes to environmental policy, where Trump has made his greatest inroads. Early action included letting mountaintop miners dump waste in nearby waterways and allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider strict fuel efficiency standards. An executive order signed on Tuesday instructed the EPA to roll back Obama’s Clean Power Plan, in addition to paving the way for coal leasing on federal lands, the rewriting of limits on methane emissions, and the removal of climate changes as a mandatory consideration in policymaking. Though Trump has not yet formally withdrawn from the landmark Paris Climate accord (one of Obama’s signature achievements), he will make it effectively impossible for the United States to meet the accord’s benchmarks.

And yet, even on this front, Obama’s legacy seems stronger than initially foreseen. There is the matter of the courts, which have already directed the EPA to act on its finding that climate change is a threat to human health, and will undoubtedly be hearing cases soon challenging Trump’s actions. And there is also the cumbersome rule-making processes that will end up delaying some of Trump’s directives, potentially for years.

The Obama administration had to contend with these hurdles as well. But over the course of eight years they were able to make advancements on climate policy, and they did so precisely through the grunt work of governance that the Trump administration does not yet seem to fully appreciate.

“I would call it ‘the triumph of rigor,’” said Patrick Gaspard, Obama’s former political director. “Rigor matters. As does the ability to convince even those who voted against you that your approach was governed by a fierce integrity.”

“Too much is made of dealmaking and going with gut,” he added. “Obama had an informed decisiveness that contained the passion of those in trenches with him and the anxieties of those who feared change. That’s the weatherproofing on his policy legacy.”

Donald Trump unveiling executive actions to undo Obama's environmental policies.
Donald Trump unveiling executive actions to undo Obama's environmental policies.
Carlos Barria / Reuters

Of course, there’s still plenty of time for Trump to rip apart the Obama legacy in a fashion he promised. And not everyone assumes that he’ll be content to let matters like health care reform, or the Iran deal, or refugee policy simply remain in place and move on.

“I assure you, I stand by my Chait review,” Domenech told The Huffington Post.

But the likelihood has clearly grown that Trump will end up taking a more nuanced approach, that he’ll work within the Obama governing framework instead of trying to dismantle it. On health care, already his administration is talking about working with Democrats to reform Obamacare, while House Republicans have begun looking at ways to fund a provision of the law that they previously sued the Obama administration to end.

“I had a book that seemed to be saying the opposite of what people felt at the time. It ran into that timing problem of people looking for an explanation of the opposite of what I was trying to explain. But it has become more apparent that it was correct,” said Chait. “I think it is going, in some ways, better than I predicted at the time.”

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