President Obama’s critics spent eight years dismissing his accomplishments as wildly overambitious, or insignificant. (Some of the very same people who accused him of the former, and warned his socialist agenda would lead to devastation, switched to the latter when their doomsday predictions failed to take hold.) Since November, the indictment has come to focus on the election of Donald Trump, an event Obama’s critics on both the left and right see as a kind of divine justice, both negating his agenda and ultimately defining it.
It is more than a bit odd to define a presidency by its successor. Most historians regard Abraham Lincoln as the greatest president in American history, despite the fact that he was immediately followed by the president most of them consider the worst, Andrew Johnson. Yet few people consider Johnson to be a central part of Lincoln’s legacy (even though Lincoln single-handedly enabled Johnson to get the job, by dumping his anti-slavery vice-president, Hannibal Hamlin, and adding the Southern, pro-slavery Johnson to the ticket to help secure his reelection.)
Whether Trump manages to reverse many of Obama’s major accomplishments remains to be seen. Trump’s bid to repeal Obamacare has run into a series of immediate obstacles, beginning with the fact that both the 20 million people who get health care through the law and the doctors, hospitals, and insurers who sell it to them are raising bloody hell about snatching it away. Trump will slow down the green-energy revolution Obama started, but he won’t halt it; the economic logic of affordable clean energy displacing expensive coal, and the diplomatic logic of international cooperation to ratchet down emissions, have taken on a momentum of their own. And the bold actions Obama took to prevent a depression — the stimulus, the bank stress test, and the auto bailout — cannot be undone by definition.
The fashion for blaming Trump on Obama has less to do with any programmatic analysis of the 44th president, though. It is a tic adopted by Obama’s critics — especially those who dislike Trump but wish to vindicate their fervent opposition to Obama. Former Bush administration staffer Peter Wehner argues in the New York Times that Obama not only failed to produce a sufficiently prosperous economy, he failed in his major domestic policy goal:
To make matters worse, the Obama presidency has been characterized by injurious incompetence, in particular with regard to his signature achievement, Obamacare. The unveiling of the website was a disaster, and the promises the president made — that Americans could keep their doctors and plans if they chose to — were false. Mr. Obama guaranteed lower insurance costs to families and lower health costs to the taxpayer; instead, costs rose. Several of the state-run exchanges appear to be headed for collapse.
These are familiar grounds on which to prosecute the case against Obamacare. Yes, the website didn’t work for a few weeks, until they fixed it quickly enough so as not to impact the initial enrollment period. The promise of lower insurance costs for families and taxpayers has been resoundingly kept; since Obamacare began, health-care inflation has fallen to its lowest level in half a century. The cost to the taxpayers has come in well below projected levels and has been revised downward repeatedly. As an S&P analysis found, premiums in the exchanges were initially set too low, but have since stabilized. The federal government is now spending less than it was expected to spend before Obamacare passed, but is covering 20 million more people.
It is true that Obama overpromised that everybody could keep their plan. The architects of the Affordable Care Act considered the non-group market a disaster, rife with plans that cherry-picked healthy customers, denying usable coverage to anybody with a preexisting condition. Their goal was to overhaul that market while keeping the employer-based system intact. Obama made this promise in the context of Republican attempts to frighten people into thinking his reforms would take away their employer-sponsored insurance, like in this 2010 speech:
It builds on the current system where most Americans get their health insurance from their employer. If you like your plan, you can keep your plan. If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.
Yes, sometimes Obama omitted the qualifiers and context. And it is true that his reforms eliminated existing plans in the non-group market. That meant young, healthy individuals who were able to buy cheap insurance — because they didn’t have to pool risks with older or sicker people — lost that ability under Obamacare. Obama should have been more precise with his promise.
Yet conservatives have fetishized his misleading use of the phrase “keep your plan” to the degree that they have convinced themselves it is the defining quality of Obamacare — as if the achievements of giving millions of people access to medical care, and bending the cost curve, were dwarfed by a misleading, oversimplified catchphrase. Wehner concludes his column by charging that Obama’s alleged failures “create[d] the conditions that allowed a cynical demagogue to rise up and succeed him, one who will undo the achievements he most prizes.”
Now, think about this for a minute. Wehner served loyally under George W. Bush and refuses to acknowledge that administration’s catastrophic failures. This is an administration that sold an entire war on false premises, pressuring the intelligence community to bend its findings to support the claims the president and vice-president were determined to press from the outset of their presidency. Bush then presided over a historically weak recovery that produced no wage gains — a charge Wehner, falsely, levels against the Obama recovery — and relied upon a massive housing bubble. The collapse of the Bush bubble created the greatest economic crisis in three-quarters of a century, and an economic gulf so deep it took years to recover. This is not to mention the widespread incompetence, scandals, and hackery that permeated everything Bush touched. And yet here is a veteran of the Bush administration arguing in all apparent sincerity that Trump’s rise was fueled by economic weakness and presidential incompetence and dishonesty of a previous president, and that president is Barack Obama.
Trump does say something important about the Obama years. But what he says is something very different. Republicans have spent eight years insisting Obama holds some or even all the blame for their refusal to negotiate with his policies. Why would a party that once advocated Keynesian stimulus and an individual mandate and cap and trade come to denounce all those ideas as ruinous socialism? The explanation offered by conservatives, and taken seriously by many fair-minded observers, held that the party had undertaken a serious process of ideological self-evaluation. Republicans had simply embraced deep-seated beliefs in stringent fiscal conservatism, Constitutional absolutism, and the principles of limited government.
The rise of Trump shows how false that explanation rings. Here is a candidate who makes a mockery of all those alleged principles. Trump reveals that the backlash against Obama was exactly what liberals said it was, racialized hysteria against social change, and that no negotiating strategy or policy concessions could have calmed the rage on the right.
Obama produced a tremendous amount of progress in spite of a backlash he could do nothing to stop. And he will leave the White House with peace and prosperity and an approval rating hovering around 60 percent. Trump belongs to the right. He is a product of the backlash against Obamaism, and the personal and ideological antithesis of the urbane, intellectual, sober, empirically minded 44th president. Trump is related to Obama only in that he is the perfect incarnation of the rage, bigotry, and ignorance that defined his opposition.