Analysis: Can Trump Destroy Obama's Legacy?
The New York Times
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — When the judgment of history comes, former President Barack
Obama might have figured he would have plenty to talk about. Among other
things, he assumed he could point to his health care program, his
sweeping trade deal with Asia, his global climate change accord and his
diplomatic opening to Cuba.
That was then. Five months after leaving office, Mr. Obama watches
mostly in silence as his successor takes a political sledgehammer to his
legacy. Brick by brick, President Trump is trying to tear down what Mr.
Obama built. The trade deal? Canceled. The climate pact? Forget it.
Cuba? Partially reversed. Health care? Unresolved, but to be repealed if
he can navigate congressional crosscurrents.
Every new president changes course, particularly those succeeding
someone from the other party. But rarely has a new president appeared so
determined not just to steer the country in a different direction but to
actively dismantle what was established before his arrival. Whether out
of personal animus, political calculation, philosophical disagreement or
a conviction that the last president damaged the country, Mr. Trump has
made clear that if it has Mr. Obama's name on it, he would just as soon
erase it from the national hard drive.
"I've reflected back and simply cannot find another instance in recent
American history where a new administration was so wholly committed to
reversing the accomplishments of its predecessor," Russell Riley, a
presidential historian at the University of Virginia's Miller Center,
said. While other presidents focus on what they will build, "this one is
different, far more comfortable still in swinging the wrecking ball than
in developing models for what is to follow."
Shirley Anne Warshaw, director of the Fielding Center for Presidential
Leadership Study at Gettysburg College, said Mr. Trump is not unusual in
making a clean break from his predecessor. "Trump isn't doing anything
that Obama didn't do," she said. "He is simply reversing policies that
were largely put in place by a president of a different party."
The difference, she said, is that other presidents have proactive ideas
about what to erect in place of their predecessor's programs. "I have
not seen any constructive bills in this vein that Trump has put forth,"
she said. "As far as I can tell, he has no independent legislative
agenda other than tearing down. Perhaps tax reform."
With a flourish, Mr. Trump has staged signing ceremonies meant to show
him tearing down. Not only did he pull out of the Trans-Pacific
Partnership trade deal and the Paris climate accord, he approved the
Keystone XL pipeline Mr. Obama had rejected and began reversing his
fuel-efficiency standards and power plant emissions limits. Not only is
he trying to repeal Obamacare, he has pledged to revoke regulations on
Wall Street adopted after the financial crash of 2008.
Still, he has not gone as far as threatened. He has for now kept Mr.
Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran, however reluctantly, and while he
made a show of overturning Mr. Obama on Cuba, the fine print left much
of the policy intact. He did not rescind Mr. Obama's order sparing
younger illegal immigrants from deportation. Senate Republicans released
a new version of legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare in recent
days, but it may yet end in impasse, leaving the program in place.
Advisers insist Mr. Trump is not driven by a desire to unravel the Obama
presidency. But like the Manhattan real estate developer he is, they
said, he believes he must in some cases demolish the old to make way for
"He hasn't dismantled everything, and I don't know that that's exactly
what he's looking to do," said Hope Hicks, the White House director of
strategic communications. "That may be a side effect of what he's
building for his own legacy. I don't think anybody's coming into the
office every day saying, 'How can we undo Obama's legacy, and how can he
go back?' "
Yet Mr. Trump has depicted the Obama legacy as a disastrous one that
needs unraveling. "To be honest, I inherited a mess," he said at a news
conference soon after taking office. "It's a mess. At home and abroad,
a mess. Jobs are pouring out of the country. You see what's going on
with all of the companies leaving our country, going to Mexico and other
places, low pay, low wages, mass instability overseas no matter where
you look. The Middle East is a disaster. North Korea. We'll take care of
Critics say Mr. Obama brought this on himself. His biggest legislative
achievements were passed almost exclusively with Democratic votes,
meaning there was no bipartisan consensus that would outlast his
presidency. And when Republicans captured Congress, he turned to a
strategy he called the pen and the phone, signing executive orders that
could be easily erased by the next president.
"I've heard it joked about that the Obama library is being revised to
focus less on his legislative achievements as each week of the Trump
administration goes by," said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American
Conservative Union. "It's like living by the sword and dying by the
sword. When your presidency is based on a pen and a phone, all of that
can be undone, and I think we're seeing that happening rather
Mr. Obama would argue he had little choice because of Republican
obstructionism. Either way, he has largely remained quiet through the
current demolition project, reasoning that speaking out would only give
Mr. Trump the public enemy he seems to crave. He made an exception on
Thursday, taking to Facebook to assail the new Senate health care bill
as "a massive transfer of wealth from middle class and poor families to
the richest people in America." But Mr. Obama's team takes solace in the
belief that Mr. Trump is his own worst enemy, better at bluster than
actually following through.
"Obama's legacy would be under much greater threat by a more competent
president than Donald Trump," said Josh Earnest, who served as Mr.
Obama's White House press secretary. "His inexperience and lack of
discipline are an impediment to his success in implementing policies
that would reverse what Obama instituted."
Other Obama veterans said much of what Mr. Trump has done was either
less dramatic than it appeared or reversible. He did not actually break
relations with Cuba, for instance. It will take years to actually
withdraw from the Paris accord, and the next president could rejoin. The
real impact, they argued, was to America's international reputation.
"There's a lot of posturing and, in fact, not a huge amount of change,
and to the extent there has been change, it's been of the self-defeating
variety," said Susan E. Rice, the former national security adviser.
"What's been happening is not that the administration is undoing
President Obama's legacy, it's undoing American leadership on the
Mr. Trump, of course, is hardly the first president to scorn his
predecessor's tenure. George W. Bush was so intent on doing the opposite
of whatever Bill Clinton had done that his approach was called "ABC" —
Anything but Clinton. Mr. Obama spent years blaming his predecessor for
economic and national security setbacks — blame that supporters
considered justified and that Mr. Bush's team considered old-fashioned
For decades, presidents moving into the Oval Office have made a point on
their first day or two of signing orders overturning policies of the
last tenant, what Mr. Riley called "partisan kabuki" to signal that "a
new president is in town."
The most tangible example is an order signed by Ronald Reagan barring
taxpayer financing for international family planning organizations that
provide abortion counseling. Mr. Clinton rescinded it when he came into
office. Mr. Bush restored it, Mr. Obama overturned it again and Mr.
Trump restored it again.
Even so, neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Obama invested much effort in
deconstructing programs left behind. Mr. Bush kept Mr. Clinton's health
care program for lower-income children, his revamped welfare system and
his AmeriCorps service organization. Mr. Obama undid much of Mr. Bush's
No Child Left Behind education program, but kept his Medicare
prescription medicine program, his AIDS-fighting program and most of his
That was in keeping with a longer tradition. Dwight D. Eisenhower did
not unravel Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, nor did Richard M. Nixon
dismantle Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society. Mr. Reagan promised to
eliminate the departments of Education and Energy, created by Jimmy
Carter, but ultimately did not.
Mr. Obama understood that his legacy might be jeopardized by Mr. Trump.
During last year's campaign, he warned supporters that "all the progress
we've made over these last eight years goes out the window" if Mr. Trump
won. Only after the election did he assert the opposite. "Maybe 15
percent of that gets rolled back, 20 percent," he told The New Yorker's
David Remnick. "But there's still a lot of stuff that sticks."
Indeed, when it comes time to tally the record for the history books,
Mr. Trump can hardly reverse some of Mr. Obama's most important
achievements, like pulling the economy back from the abyss of a deep
recession, rescuing the auto industry and authorizing the commando raid
that killed Osama bin Laden. Nor can Mr. Trump take away what will
surely be the first line in Mr. Obama's obituary, his barrier-shattering
election as the first African-American president.
Conversely, Mr. Obama owns his failures regardless of Mr. Trump's
actions. History's judgment of his handling of the civil war in Syria or
the messy aftermath of the intervention in Libya or the economic
inequality he left behind will not depend on his successor. If anything,
America's decision to replace Mr. Obama with someone as radically
different as Mr. Trump may be taken as evidence of Mr. Obama's inability
to build sustained public support for his agenda or to mitigate the
polarization of the country.
But legacies are funny things. Presidents are sometimes defined because
their successors are so different. Mr. Obama today is more popular than
he was during most of his presidency, likely a result of the contrast
with Mr. Trump, who is the most unpopular president this early in his
tenure in the history of polling. By this argument, even if Mr. Trump
does disassemble the Obama legacy, it may redound to his predecessor's
Richard Norton Smith, who has directed the libraries of four Republican
presidents, said presidents are often credited with paving the way
toward goals that may elude them during their tenure. Harry S. Truman is
called the father of Medicare even though it was not achieved until
Johnson's presidency. Mr. Bush is remembered for pushing for immigration
reform even though Congress rebuffed him.
"It's hard to imagine future historians condemning Barack Obama for
breaking with his country's past ostracism of Cuba or joining the
civilized world in combating climate change or pursuing a more humane
and accessible approach to health care," Mr. Smith said. "Indeed, we
build memorials to presidents who prod us toward fulfilling the
egalitarian vision of Jefferson's declaration."
But that may not be all that comforting to Mr. Obama. Presidents prefer
memorials to their lasting accomplishments, not their most fleeting.
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