There has never been an American president so consumed with envy at his predecessor as Donald Trump. Consequently, there has never been a president whose legacy has been scrutinized in quite the same way as Barack Obama. That Trump would erase Obama’s achievements has served as a fantasy for Obama’s enemies on the right and the left (the latter, imagining that his shallow compromises could give way to True Socialism) and as a source of anxiety for his supporters. It has been asserted repeatedly as fact, most recently by my colleague Andrew Sullivan, who laments, “Obama’s Legacy Has Already Been Destroyed.”)
Obviously Trump has undone some of Obama’s work. But I think this conclusion makes three mistakes about Obama’s legacy: It understates its breadth, its depth, and conceptualizes the whole idea of a legacy in the wrong way.
Begin with breadth. The reason I wrote a book is that very few people, even people who follow politics closely or professionally, have been able to hold in their heads just how much Obama accomplished. Andrew is not alone in missing large swaths in his accounting. One of the most important elements of Obama’s legacy — indeed, at the time it was frequently said it would be the entire Obama legacy — was his response to the greatest financial crisis in 75 years. The stimulus, the stress tests that re-solidified the banking sector, and the auto bailout all collectively saved the economy from a second Great Depression. And all these measures passed in the face of total and frequently hysterical opposition from the entire Republican Party, along with many Democrats.
During the Obama administration, the recovery was widely slagged. It’s become clear that impression was in large part due to political messaging. Liberals complained about the recovery in order to make the case for even more robust stimulus than the historically large measures Obama enacted; conservatives dismissed the recovery for obvious partisan reasons. But the economy has not grown any faster under Trump. Trump’s greatest success has been to claim credit for the same growth rate and to rebrand it as “prosperity.” In so doing, he has, paradoxically, demonstrated his predecessor’s unappreciated policy success.
Andrew neglects to credit that achievement, which obviously cannot be rolled back. He likewise overlooks the education reforms spurred by Race to the Top, and the financial regulations created by Dodd-Frank. (Republicans have always pledged to repeal Dodd-Frank, but the most they could manage was a minor bill nicking slightly around its edges.) The opening to Cuba is another foreign policy achievement Trump has not touched.
Second, there is the question of depth. Andrew is correct that Trump is rolling back Obama’s achievements on climate and health care, but he overestimates the extent of this response. The $80-billion green energy investments in the stimulus stood up a massive expansion in green tech, from wind to solar to electric cars and more energy-efficient appliances. The plummeting cost of green energy gave world leaders the economic space to craft the first international climate accord.
Trump can’t unspend the green energy subsidies. He’s trying to undo Obama’s regulations, but courts are checking him, and market forces have stymied Trump’s desire to revive dirty energy, which continues to decline. The emissions targets reached in the first Paris accord were not ambitious enough, and were meant to set the table for continuous ratchets. Trump has thrown sand in the gears by pulling out of the accord. But while he has impeded progress, he has not stopped it, let alone restored the status quo ante. Political support for the Paris goals remains firm globally, and the economic basis for the developing world to follow a green energy path — rather than the dirty energy model the West followed — continues to brighten. Trump has been a speed bump on a path he cannot fundamentally alter.
The same basic story holds true on health care. The Affordable Care Act contained two basic changes: cost reforms, to reduce the trajectory of health care inflation, and coverage expansion. Trump’s first Health and Human Services Director, Tom Price, was a wealthy doctor and a fanatic for undoing Obama’s cost reforms. Price had to resign for his unrestrained greed, and his successor, Alex Acosta, has left those reforms in place.
The coverage expansion has proven more contentious. About half the coverage expansion occurred through Medicaid, which Trump tried, and failed, to roll back. (Andrew neglects to mention this, too.) The other half, the new individual exchanges, is more tenuous. Trump has sabotaged several aspects of the law, creating premium spikes that will harm many state exchanges and make insurance unaffordable for many customers who now have it. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that Trump will make the exchanges “unstable and unaffordable” for all. Many customers have their premiums subsidized 100 percent, which insulates them from price increases — the government is on the hook — and provides a customer base that ensures the exchanges won’t go into a full actuarial death spiral, in which only the sickest people apply. Again, Trump’s intervention is highly damaging, but not the death blow he has proclaimed (and that Andrew credits him for carrying out).
Nor is this the end of the story. Had the ACA never been passed, Trump could have kept the pre-ACA status quo at no political cost. Instead his party has absorbed massive political damage merely to achieve a partial rollback, with more damage to follow when the premium increases they engineered set in. Obama overcame the Herculean obstacle of finding 60 Senate votes to regulate health insurance. No Democrat will have to do that again. The next coverage expansion, shoring up and extending Obamacare, will start at a higher base and aim for a higher level, with less to stop it.
Finally, I take issue with the historical myopia with which Andrew approaches the whole question. In this, he is again hardly alone. Presidents are normally measured by what they accomplished, rather than how their successors managed their legacy. That the South created a feudal system of quasi-slavery after Reconstruction is not usually counted against Abraham Lincoln’s achievements in abolishing slavery. Modern Republican presidents have neutered enforcement of labor law, but you don’t usually encounter that fact when you read about how Franklin Roosevelt established the National Labor Relations Board.
It may be fair to consider the durability of legacy achievements. But in this bitter partisan age, they will inevitably swing back and forth. A still photo of the Obama legacy under Trump, as if the political clock has stopped forever, is the opposite of a long-term approach. Will Trump’s vision of health care have prevailed over Obama’s, 50 years from now? His ideas about democracy and tolerance? Will textbooks afford Trump more reverence than Obama? That story remains to be written by us all. But I suspect it will not be the one the angry, jealous old man in the Oval Office hopes for.