the national interest

Obama’s Legacy Is Finally Coming Into Focus, Thanks to Trump

Barack Obama. Photo: Pool/Getty Images

Even though it yielded a broad array of historic policy reforms, during the eight years Barack Obama occupied the White House, his administration looked and felt to most of his supporters like a bitter slog of gridlock punctuated by half-measures. And it looked to his enemies like a period of untrammeled radicalism that would soon be reversed. Six months later, his record appears very different, viewed from both the left and the right. Any president would benefit from the contrast with Donald Trump, of course. But for many reasons, not merely the flamboyant shortcomings of the current administration, the Trump era provides a vantage point from which to understand the scale and durability of the 44th president’s accomplishments. Trump, quite by mistake, is revealing the true scale of his predecessor’s achievements.

One obvious source of newfound clarity is the renewed realization that governing is hard, especially in a polarized era with a form of government laden with legislative choke points. Obama’s critics complained endlessly about the slow pace of legislation and the endless compromises wrung by interest groups and recalcitrant moderates. Liberals spent his presidency pining for imagined alternatives who could overpower the opposition. High-minded centrists endlessly blamed the president for his failure to dissuade Republicans from their strategy of total opposition, and in so doing helped reinforce the success of that opposition. Throughout his time in office, Obama labored against the contrast of hazy memories of presidents of yore who could supposedly reason with or overpower their foes and impose their legislative will.

But Trump’s experience reveals that personal charm and ideological willpower can only go so far in steamrolling these obstacles. The legislative process is inherently, famously, ugly, but we have a way of forgetting that fact when it happens. The bipartisan disgust at the ungainly policy-making under Obama — when a small, ultimately revoked break for Nebraska hospitals became a national scandal — looks quaint now that we have seen true ugliness. Needless to say, a bill-signing after an extended debate and negotiation is a more positive outcome than the total legislative collapse Trump has overseen.

The Republican base’s adoration of Trump, which differs only incrementally from its previous adoration of Sarah Palin, reveals just how naïve it was to expect Obama to persuade the opposing party to cooperate. No compromise, no set of facts, could have placated a right-wing base in the grips of atavistic cultural fear and walled off from legitimate news sources.

A second source of clarity is the psychology of loss aversion, a common cognitive bias that makes people place far too little weight on new benefits they may have gained, and far too much on those they stand to lose. That dynamic makes any complex trade-off difficult, because the real or imagined losers from any change will make more noise than the winners. Uninsured Americans who stood to gain access to coverage had almost no voice in the debate when Obamacare was created. They have significant influence now that Republicans are attempting to strip away that coverage.

Loss aversion also helps explain why many of Obama’s supporters undervalued the accomplishments of his presidency. The left shrugged at the passage of some of the most sweeping domestic reforms in decades. Obamacare? “A very small number of people are going to get any insurance at all, until 2014, if the bill works,” sniffed Howard Dean. “This is essentially the collapse of health care reform in the United States Senate.” The Paris climate accord? Meh, said Bernie Sanders: “We need bold action in the very near future and this does not provide that.”

Trump’s efforts to reverse these achievements has produced a very different assessment among supporters of these measures. Dean has called Trump’s health-care rollback “a disaster.” Sanders has called his withdrawal from the Paris agreement “an abdication of American leadership and an international disgrace.” It is logically impossible for the repeal of an insignificant reform to be catastrophic. If it is a big deal to uninsure 24 million Americans and cut taxes on the rich, then it must be a big deal to insure 24 million and raise taxes on the rich. Yet the psychology of loss aversion is pervasive in American political thinking, especially on the left. The threat posed by Trump has allowed progressives to realistically assess the scale of Obama’s achievements for the first time.

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

And finally, the last three months of Obama’s presidency operated under the shadow of the descending Trumpian hordes who, everybody believed, would quickly wipe away Obama’s policy agenda. The immediate juxtaposition of Trump and Obama framed the threat of the 45th president’s agenda against the precariousness of the 44th’s.

My book defending the scale and durability of Obama’s legacy came out during the peak moment of fear (from the left) and confidence (from the right) in Trump’s powers. The alleged ease and certainty with which Trump would reverse Obama’s achievements was invoked by critics from the right (“Jonathan Chait’s Audacity, which has the unfortunate distinction of having gone on sale 72 hours before Donald J. Trump took the oath of office, rendering it utterly irrelevant as anything but a cultural artifact demonstrating the hubris of American liberalism”) and the far left (“Most of the successes Audacity touts will likely be obsolete in the next few months. Congressional Republicans have already begun the process of repealing the Affordable Care Act.”)

As I explain in that book, this was a strange and flawed way to think about the Obama legacy. Large chunks of Obama’s achievements are not even theoretically vulnerable to reversal — most obviously, the stimulus, bank rescue, and auto bailout, which rescued the economy from a second Great Depression. Trump would desperately love to repeal the Dodd-Frank law, which restructured the finance industry and established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but his party lacks the filibuster-proof supermajority required to attempt it.

What’s more, the practice of judging a president’s record by his successor’s antagonism to it is a new one, seemingly invented for Obama. Andrew Johnson undermined Lincoln’s legacy of liberating the slaves; conservative Republicans have tried to privatize or cut programs like Social Security and Medicaid decades later. Large chunks of the regulatory state — like the National Labor Relations Board or the Securities and Exchange Commission — now function only intermittently, turning feeble when Republicans control the Executive branch. And yet these facts do not usually make historians dismiss the importance of abolition or the New Deal or the Great Society.

Trump’s presidency poses a threat to many enduring institutions of government, including the Constitution itself. That stark reality is no more reason to dismiss Obama’s legacy than to dismiss James Madison’s. And as the scale and nature of Trump’s strange mix of fanaticism, corruption and incompetence sets in, we are coming to see it as a thing of its own, not the negation of the administration that preceded it.


The most important reason so many people overestimated the ease with which Trump would overrun the Obama legacy is that they failed to grasp its breadth and depth, the degree to which its roots spread and its reforms took hold. Trump’s struggles to knock down Obama’s work have served to reveal how solidly it was constructed.

For eight years, Republicans drove themselves into a fever-pitch hysteria against the Affordable Care Act without bothering to learn how the law worked. Working from the premise that Obamacare was a uniquely ill-designed law — death panels! train wrecks! — they easily persuaded themselves and much of the country that Republicans could write something vastly better.

Half a year of Republican-run government has systematically exposed the right-wing arguments against Obamacare as bad-faith rhetoric or outright fantasy. One small-business owner, who told the New York Times in 2012 that he opposed the law as something jammed down the public’s throat, was re-interviewed this year. “I can’t even remember why I opposed it,” he now says.

It is not surprising that only this year did the Affordable Care Act become popular. The law’s unpopularity depended entirely on the existence of an imaginary alternative that was free of trade-offs. The populist fallacy that everybody can get better insurance for less money if only the government wasn’t run by morons is seductive. Obama’s wonkish explanations could not expose the fallacy’s hollowness. But the Republicans in power have proven excellent (if inadvertent) tutors.

Indeed, some of the most important subjects of the lesson have been the members of the governing party themselves, many of whom never bothered to grapple with the policy before. The Republicans have spent the year desperately trying to pass a repeal, even in the face of staggering public disapproval for their efforts, because they cannot admit their entire case against Obamacare has been built on a lie. “They can’t accept they’ve been promising something that is undeliverable and a bad idea for seven years,” a “well-connected former Republican aide” told a reporter.

Despite the utter certainty by critics that Obamacare would cause a price spiral, medical inflation has registered at the lowest level in half a century. Insurers on the exchanges have mostly stabilized their coverage pools at profitable levels. (The exceptions are rural markets, which have always struggled to maintain economies of scale.) The remaining struggles the law has faced are overwhelmingly accounted for by administrative sabotage by hostile Republican politicians. Even in the face of a seven-year sabotage campaign, the law is delivering premiums at the levels forecast by the Congressional Budget Office, with government spending well below the forecast.


A similar story can be seen on climate change. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement certainly slows and complicates the decarbonization trajectory that Obama had set. But some perspective is necessary. Obama’s climate-change strategy linked together political and economic momentum both domestically and internationally. Domestically, green-energy subsidies created in the stimulus would drive innovation, and the easier it became more technologically feasible to bring down emissions, the more ambitious politicians would become. Internationally, American promises in Paris could help produce reciprocal agreements from other countries. And as the green-energy developmental path became more economical, developing economies like India and China would increase their willingness to take it.

Of the four pieces — domestic politics and economics, and overseas politics and economics — Trump has halted progress only on the first. The tax credits for wind and solar power from the stimulus in 2009 were quietly extended in 2015. The market, which makes investment decisions over decades-long time horizons, is treating Trump’s energy revanchism as a blip.

Photo: Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

Coal plants are continuing to shut down in 2017, and no new ones have opened. Even though Trump greenlighted the Keystone XL pipeline months ago with great fanfare, TransCanada has quietly still not decided if it plans to actually build it. The price of batteries continues to plummet — from $1,000 a kilowatt-hour in 2010 to under $230 now, and falling. Cheaper electric batteries have brought electric cars to the cusp of economic parity with gasoline engines. Tesla, which is essentially a creation of the stimulus, is rolling out its Tesla 3 model and building massive new factories, while every domestic automaker is frantically competing in the electric car market, which all see as the future. Cheaper batteries are also expanding the potential for wind and solar to store and supply power when it isn’t sunny or windy. Even in places like Minnesota, zero-carbon energy sources with storage will soon be as cheap as electricity supplied by natural gas.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has likewise come to see Trump as an aberration rather than a sea change in American climate policy. Despite fears that America could blow up the Paris agreement, other signatories have instead decided to wait out the White House’s erratic current occupant and continue their decarbonization paths. China is building the world’s largest carbon market. Global coal production has seen its largest drop ever. The electric car market is surging worldwide, causing analysts to dramatically recalibrate how rapidly battery-powered vehicles will spread. Just over the last year, Exxon raised its forecast of the 2040 electric vehicle market from 65 million to 100 million, and OPEC raised its forecast from 46 million to 266 million.

The questions around the politics of climate change concern how fast the world will decarbonize and how much damage from climate change it will sustain in the process. The overall direction is not at issue. It is already clear that Obama’s legacy on climate change, from the green-energy investments in the stimulus to the diplomatic breakthrough in Paris, will long outlast whatever imprint Trump can leave behind.


None of this is to say that we should not feel any concern about the threat posed by Trump. The threat is enormous, although the potential damage he could wreak through administrative incompetence almost surely dwarfs the scale of whatever he could do by design. The point is to stop equating the threat to the republic with the threat to Obama’s legacy. The latter is holding up against the administration’s assault even as decades of built-up norms of American government give way.

Trump’s presidency so far has likewise put the lie to the notion that he exposed some fatal flaw in the Obama political coalition. Remember the heady predictions of a Trumpian America in the wake of the surprising, though historically narrow, election? “Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” predicted Steve Bannon. “It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

Nothing like this has happened. Even coasting on the crest of the Obama-era economic expansion, and having yet to face a crisis he did not create himself, Trump’s approval rating sits in the 30s. Republicans hope only to extract as much policy value as they can from the administration before it collapses onto itself. Having won power by exploiting Hillary Clinton’s anomalous personal unpopularity, the Republicans’ domestic agenda is systematically alienating their own voters.

When the wreckage from this presidency is cleared away, there will be only one party that possesses a politically and substantively workable governing model. Trump’s administration may have the power to destroy, but Obama’s had the power to build.

Trump Is Proving That Obama’s Legacy Will Survive