the national interest

Trump Hasn’t Destroyed Obama’s Legacy. He’s Revealed How Impressive It Was.

Donald Trump and Barack Obama. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When Barack Obama departed the White House a year ago, his legacy appeared to face mortal peril. Liberals, with their tendency toward hysteria, and conservatives, with their tendency toward gloating, united behind this belief. “Donald Trump has the power to rip Barack Obama’s legacy out by its roots,” asserted a story in Vox. “Brick by brick, President Trump is trying to tear down what Mr. Obama built,” reported the New York Times. “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 Unresolved, but to be repealed if he can navigate congressional crosscurrents.”

Yet even as conservatives have grown more satisfied with Trump’s accomplishments, they have retreated from their giddy belief that he could and would dismantle his predecessor’s. Indeed, in a curious way, Trump has inadvertently affirmed the value and durability of the 44th presidency. One year after his departure, Obama’s legacy is actually stronger than ever.

The most evident fight over the Obama legacy, and also the moment when conservatives abandoned their giddy certainty that Trump would sweep it away, came in the struggle over Obamacare. Trump’s desire to humiliate his predecessor was so fanatical he was willing to absorb deep political damage: attempt to throw millions of his own voters off their insurance, force House Republicans to vote for historically unpopular legislation, and when it all failed, engineer a series of executive orders whose only purpose was to sabotage the functioning of the individual insurance market.

Trump has succeeded in driving up premiums and impairing enrollment. After the successful introduction of Obamacare drove the uninsured rate down by more than a third, it rose nearly a percentage point in the last quarter after Trump’s sabotage efforts took hold:

The GOP vote to eliminate the individual mandate will increase premiums in the individual marketplaces. But it won’t destroy them. The law’s subsidies, which remain intact, let people with low incomes buy insurance at little or no cost to them. This ensures enough healthy customers will stay in the insurance pool to prevent the death spiral Republicans have since 2013 been predicting and trying desperately to bring about. With the insurance subsidies and the regulations preventing insurers from excluding people with preexisting conditions in place, and the funding for the Medicaid expansion likewise safe, the law’s core affordability measures have proved invulnerable.

This is not the triumph Republicans imagined. When Trump won the election, Republicans expected they would quickly and easily sweep away a law they had convinced themselves Americans loathed with the same ideological intensity the conservative elite did. They did not understand how seriously the public would take their promises to replace Obamacare with insurance that was cheaper and better, nor how impossible those promises would prove to carry out. They certainly did not anticipate that their efforts to destroy the law would make it popular.

Obamacare’s coverage expansion may be its most high-profile feature, but it is not its only one. The law also created a wide array of cost reforms, designed to bend the cost curve by reducing the incentive by doctors and hospitals to prescribe the most costly treatments. Those reforms have had an impact, helping to drive the medical inflation rate to historic lows. (After posturing against Obama’s payment reforms, the Trump administration quietly kept them in place.)


There has not been a high-profile legislative fight over Obama’s response to climate change. But the outcome has been similar: Trump has declared his intention to roll it back, and he has largely failed.

Obama’s climate strategy was to drive investment in clean energy sources — first through subsidies created by the stimulus, and then through regulation — and then to help negotiate an international agreement to bring down emissions in other countries.

Trump has killed Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which required emissions reductions in the electric power sector, and has weakened enforcement of other regulations on fossil-fuel burners. But this hasn’t radically changed the pace of the green-energy revolution, because firms make investment decisions based on long-term expectations, not just on who happens to control the presidency for four years. Tesla and the traditional car companies are all pursuing electric vehicles, the unsubsidized cost of which is rapidly converging with traditional gasoline-powered cars. Despite Trump’s promise to put coal miners back to work, coal remains in steep decline, with production having dropped 11 percent over the last year. The cost of wind and solar energy is still dropping rapidly, to the point where in many states it is now cheaper than running existing fossil-fuel plants. Meanwhile, the cost of battery storage is also falling, enabling wind and solar to replace fossil-fuel sources even when it’s not sunny or windy.

Bringing down emissions in the United States would have done little good if other countries simply jacked up their own carbon use. (Indeed, this was the main talking point conservatives used to oppose Obama’s plans.) The Paris climate agreement ratified emissions reductions across the world — especially in India and China, fast-growing economies that would create catastrophic emissions increases if they follow the dirty-energy development path of the West. By promising to pull the United States out of the Paris agreement, Trump threatened to undermine the entire deal.

But the Paris agreement hasn’t unraveled. Just as the private sector has taken the long view of the green-energy revolution, so have leaders across the planet. They have treated Trump as a four-year blip and worked around his obstinance. Governments in China, India, and elsewhere are deepening their investments in clean energy sources.

None of this is to say Trump’s retrograde, science-denialist policy has had no impact. The daunting challenge of climate change means decarbonization needs to accelerate. The world is moving in the right direction, but not fast enough to avoid harmful climate change (which has already begun to occur). Trump’s policy of throwing sand in the gears has created deep harm, but he has merely slowed the changes Obama put into place; he has not stopped them or reversed their direction.

Despite his threats to repeal the Dodd-Frank reforms of the financial industry, Trump has failed to muster the 60 Senate votes necessary to do so. Instead, Republicans will settle for tinkering around the edges of the law. Trump is weakening consumer financial protection enforcement, in the same way he is weakening enforcement of other regulations Republicans don’t like, such as labor, environmental, and campaign-finance law. But large swaths of the regulatory state are now enforced weakly, if at all, during Republican presidencies. That doesn’t negate Obama’s regulatory reforms any more than it does regulations created under Nixon or Johnson or Roosevelt.

It was obviously not possible for Trump to reverse Obama’s response to recession, since it consisted of a series of one-time actions (a stimulus, a bailout of the auto industry, and stress tests to restore the banking system). But Trump’s actions have cast all those moves in a different, and much more sympathetic light.


Republicans spent eight years subjecting Obama’s economic record to unceasing, frenzied opposition. Obama would crush the economy under a mountain of debt; he was engaging in “crony capitalism,” or even “gangster government,” by subsidizing clean energy innovators or rescuing the auto industry; the recovery his policies produced was miserably slow.

Trump has retrospectively negated every one of these charges. Republicans have predictably abandoned the debt hysteria that underpinned their opposition to Obama’s stimulus. In 2009, facing the worst financial crisis in three-quarters of a century, they claimed unemployment threatening to exceed 10 percent still did not justify a one-time $800 billion addition to the national debt. In 2017, with the unemployment rate under 5 percent, they claimed the economy was still too sluggish and passed a tax cut that adds twice as much to the the national debt as did the stimulus.

Republicans likewise shrieked with horror at Obama’s interventions in the marketplace, but Trump has made a mockery of this principle, beginning with his singling out of a Carrier plant in Indiana for special treatment. In Trump’s government, the entanglements between the businessmen who run the government and those receiving favored treatment from government run so deep it is frequently impossible to tell one from the other. Trump is hardly alone in his willingness to make special deals with favored industries; self-styled opponent of “crony capitalism” Paul Ryan has celebrated an absurdly generous package of tailored tax favors that lured Foxconn into his district.

The Republican tax-cut bill is laden with winners and losers picked for no clear economic reason. “The owner of a successful chain of tanning salons should qualify for a new tax deduction, but someone who makes the same amount from a group of dermatology clinics won’t,” reports The Wall Street Journal. “A high-earning architect can generally claim that same tax break, but the designer who collects a big fee for working on the building’s interior probably can’t.”

The recovery that Obama’s policies helped engineer has continued on more or less the same pace. This has prompted Republicans to rebrand essentially the same recovery as a boundless new era of prosperity. Trump once painted these economic conditions as bleak desolation from which he would rescue us, but he almost immediately turned around and proclaimed the rescue having been accomplished. Job creation has not accelerated, nor has the stock market increased at a faster pace — Republicans have simply stopped talking down these achievements.

For instance, Trump takes special care to tout the African-American unemployment rate. It has been dropping steadily since 2010:

In 2016, Trump was saying things like this to the black community: “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed — what the hell do you have to lose?” Now he presents almost identical conditions as the greatest prosperity African-Americans have ever enjoyed.

These aren’t small points about hypocrisy. The entire basis of Republican criticism of Obama’s economic policy rested on these charges. It all turns out to be phony: their terror of deficits, their abhorrence of alleged favoritism for Solyndra or other firms, their conviction that the outcome of these policies was pathetically weak. The Republican Party’s own standards of economic policy reveal the Obama economic agenda to be a success. The only real problem Republicans had with Obama’s economic record all along is that Obama was the one creating it.

But what we now see clearly in hindsight about these charges was far from evident at the time. During the Obama administration, Republican complaints about deficits, “crony capitalism,” and the sluggish recovery were hardly just boob bait for the Fox News audience. These criticisms were taken seriously by members of both parties and formed the basis for a consistent undertow of bipartisan disapproval, especially among business and media elites. Why didn’t Obama get Republicans to make a deal on the deficit? they demanded. The self-styled sensible center could not stop giving Obama a share of blame for the extremism of the opposition.

The rise of Trump has revealed a great deal about the character of the party that opposed Obama. Its unyielding opposition to anything he did was not caused by him “ramming partisan legislation down their throats” or failing to cut the deficit or arrogantly refusing to woo their leaders. The opposition to Obama was primarily a racialized hysteria justified on spurious procedural grounds that have since been discarded. The noise and frenzy of opposition obscured the scale of what Obama was able to build. In the brutal contrast, Trump’s presidency has shown us what a successful presidency with enduring achievements really looks like.

Trump Hasn’t Destroyed Obama’s Legacy