The Legacy of a President


The morning after Donald Trump was elected President, sitting President Obama addressed the nation on the lawn of the White House. Lips pursed and voice measured, he urged optimism and support for the President-elect. “We all want what’s best for this country,” he insisted, “and that’s what I heard in Mr. Trump’s remarks last night.” But for all the talk of a peaceful transition of power, there must be some degree of fear in the Obama administration about what a Trump presidency means for Obama’s legacy. Immigration policy, the Iran nuclear agreement, Obamacare: these are core policy pillars of Obama’s tenure that, if Trump’s campaign promises can be believed, are under serious threat. In that same speech, President Obama compared the role of president to that of a relay runner, who carries the baton as far as he can, and “hopefully by the time [he] hands it off, [he’s] a little further ahead, made a little progress.” The problem with that analogy is that now, perhaps more so than any previous election, there is a very real possibility that Donald Trump seizes the baton and proceeds to run directly backwards.

The question of how Trump’s election will affect Obama’s legacy is a broad institutional one, not simply one of partisan divide. Trump is not simply a threat to the Obama legacy because he is Republican and has a different policy agenda. Many presidents, most notably Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, relinquished the Oval Office to the opposite party and yet were able, to use Obama’s own words, to “change the trajectory of America.” The question is whether Trump’s radical policy proposals, paired with a Republican controlled Congress, will lead to the death of Obama’s historical legacy.

A Legislative Execution

The legacy of a President has two parts: (1) his legislative legacy, the concrete policies that stand the test of time; and (2) his symbolic legacy. The latter is more difficult to evaluate, but Donald Trump clearly represents a serious threat to the former.

The Affordable Care Act, the massive healthcare reform bill passed in 2010, was President Obama’s brainchild. It was also the success that the Democrats have been waiting for since Bill Clinton’s healthcare reform bill failed in 1993. Donald Trump, with the support of a Republican legislature, has vowed to not only repeal it in its entirety but also to scrap federal healthcare subsidies for low- and middle-income Americans. It is likely that this revolutionary piece of legislation, which Obama struggled for two years to convince Congress to pass, will be revoked just months into the Trump Presidency. During his tenure Obama has made climate change a key priority, and in April signed the Paris Agreement, an international treaty that seeks to lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce global warming. Trump, who has repeatedly denied the existence of global warming, has promised to “cancel” the Paris Agreement, dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form,” and repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

But it’s not only Obama’s domestic legacy that’s under duress. Admittedly, Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East has not been without complications: the Arab Spring, the military withdrawal from Iraq and the subsequent rise of ISIL, and the ongoing civil war in Syria. However, the Iran nuclear deal—along with Osama bin Laden’s assassination—is Obama’s real claim to the advancement of stability in the region. Brokering a deal to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons while getting Russia, China, and the European Union to sign off on it was a massive accomplishment for President Obama. Yet, Trump has promised to jettison the agreement.

Erosion, Already

There are some reasonable doubts as to whether Trump will aggressively implement all of his campaign promises. Leaving NATO, an idea Trump has flirted with throughout his campaign, looks unlikely to happen, for example. And as mentioned earlier, there is historical precedent of past presidents emerging as successors of the opposite party and avoiding a full-scale policy reversal. In fact, political scientists use the term policy feedback to describe this phenomenon. A prime example of this feedback occurred in 2008 when Obama left George W. Bush’s aggressive counterterrorism program largely intact. However, Trump’s victory in the election is already beginning to chip away at Obama’s legislative legacy.

Last week the Justice Department said that Obama’s ongoing deportation amnesty court case would be suspended in light of Donald Trump’s victory. Even more dramatically, Trump has said he will immediately deport between 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants as soon as he takes office in January. Also, the GOP’s continued control of the Senate means that Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland will not be appointed. In fact, Trump has already released a list of potential justices, all of them conservative.

Room for Hope

The combination of President Trump and a Republican controlled Congress are likely to erase much of Obama’s legislative and foreign policy successes. But it’s important to remember that legacy is not simply a question of legislature. Barack Obama was this country’s first black president, and oversaw a period of sweeping social change. Obama’s legacy takes a serious blow with Donald Trump’s election, but it certainly isn’t ruined. Other, less quantifiable aspects of his presidency—gravitas, poise, and grace—will serve Obama well in the history books. Maybe the most telling example of this grace was that White House lawn speech two weeks ago, in which Obama emphasized a peaceful transition of power, and offered some reassuring words to those young people who do fear for his legacy and for the future. “Don’t get cynical,” he pleaded, “don’t ever think you can’t make a difference.”

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  1. A

    I don’t see how one could argue that the Middle East, or the US’s foreign policy position overall, is better than it was when President Obama took office. Here are some examples:
    Iraq – When Obama took office, the surge was winding down and the country was comparatively stable, but not nearly ready to stand on its own; however, he went forward with removing troops and intelligence assets. Now, come the end of his term, we’ve sent in a few hundred “boots on the ground but technically not boots on the ground,” and a radical insurgency controls large swathes of territory. If we hadn’t pulled out as soon as he did, then we would probably have as many troops there as we do now, except there would be no ISIS.
    Russia – Russia has taken over the Crimea without the US so much as lifting a finger.
    Syria – President Obama has failed to act to protect the people of Syria, he backed off of the red line he drew, Russia is expanding its influence in the region virtually unchecked…
    Libya – Not even considering the Benghazi disaster, the administration’s limited intervention did little to nothing to prevent Libya from becoming a breeding ground for terrorism.
    Not to say that Trump will do a better job – I highly doubt that he will – but Obama’s foreign policy is nothing to hang one’s hat on.

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