When President Obama left office four years ago, his legacy was dominated by a mood of pervasive defeatism. The shock of Donald Trump’s election loomed over everything Obama had done, casting his supporters into despair and his critics into jubilation. Trump was supposedly poised to wipe away Obama’s achievements. And in a broader sense, the 45th president seemed to have overturned the country’s very sense of itself that Obama had cultivated.
Four years later, we have a more mature, less hysterical perspective on Obama’s tenure. Trump has suffered first an electoral defeat (by a 7 million vote margin) and then a broader repudiation. And the man who beat him is Obama’s vice-president, who campaigned on a Biden-y version of Obama’s program and governing vision: a liberal uniter, appealing to our better angels and expressing confidence that America can rise above its ugliness.
Perhaps Obama’s presidency was not, in fact, dispelled by Trump. Perhaps there was indeed something enduring.
I had the misfortune of timing to publish a book defending Obama’s accomplishments just as Trump was sweeping into office, an event which critics considered to be a completely self-evident negation of my thesis. An instant consensus formed after the election that Trump would sweep away his predecessor’s work. “Obama’s legacy is toast; it’s gone,” said Charles Krauthammer, in an assessment echoed across the political spectrum.
This was the peak moment for a genre that eventually came to be known as “diner journalism,” which presumed Trump Voters held some secret knowledge and represented the authentic America. It was also a moment of peak hubris on the left, which took Hillary Clinton’s defeat as a pure repudiation of Obama and of liberalism as a whole. They knew Clinton had lost because she, and Obama, had associated themself with technocratic neoliberalism. And this belief — well before crushing defeats by Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. and then Bernie Sanders in the U.S. — created a delirious anticipation that left-wing populism could and would win back the white working class.
The belief that Trump had effectively defeated Obama, not Hillary Clinton, informed the criticism from right and left. A second belief they held was that Trump would surely erase the achievements I was defending. Ben Domenech wrote in National Review that my book’s central thesis is dashed against the sharp rocks of reality,” namely Trump’s victory. “Now Republicans are poised to eviscerate the achievements Chait celebrates,” sneered Timothy Shenk in the left-wing New Republic. Alex Nichols gloated: “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. The Clean Power Plan is being contested in federal court. Trump pledged to dismantle Dodd-Frank.”
That is not, in fact, what happened. Indeed, while Trump has weakened some Obama accomplishments, his goal of eviscerating Obama’s policies mostly failed. I have not seen anybody revisit the predictions that were so confidently issued four years ago, so it is worth reconsidering what Obama did, and what is left standing as Trump departs the White House for the last time.
One of the odd things about the blithe insistence that Trump would wipe away Obama’s achievements is that, for some of them, it was literally impossible to do. Much of Obama’s first year was devoted to rescuing the economy from the economic meltdown he inherited. That project was a success, and what he did could not be erased because that is not how the space-time continuum works.
Obama’s response to the economic crisis — the deepest economic crisis since the Depression — had three major parts. First, he conducted a “stress test” to assess the ongoing viability of the banks, which were presumed to be on the brink of failure in early 2009. Second, he used unspent funds from TARP, passed in 2008, to rescue the auto industry, which was on the brink of bankruptcy, and whose failure would have plunged much of the Midwest into a permanent depression.
Both these maneuvers were deeply controversial at the time. The stress test was mocked as ineffectual, and the auto bailout as a dangerous extension of government power into the marketplace. Yet both succeeded so clearly that their critics stopped attacking either one.
The third measure was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, known as the stimulus. This, too, provoked intense controversy. Not only did conservatives oppose it, but the broad center — business leaders, moderate columnists and talk-show hosts in the media, and centrist Democrats — considered the deficit, not unemployment, to be the primary problem, and blanched at the idea of increasing it. A widely touted academic paper asserted that the United States sat on the precipice of a level of debt that would plunge it into an inescapable vortex. (Several years later, after its influence had already been felt, the paper was found to have been based on a simple error.)
In recent years, a revisionist history promoted by Obama’s critics on the left has taken hold, which largely blames him for failing to pass an even larger stimulus than the $787 billion he managed to cajole out of Congress. (Obama later finagled several hundred billion dollars in additional stimulus in subsequent lower-profile deals.) Intercept editor Ryan Grim recently gave a thumbnail summary of this now-popular recollection:
It is true that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel employed profanity, and that the administration proposed a stimulus no higher than a trillion dollars. The reason, though, was not its own reluctance to increase the deficit, but that the bill had to get through a Congress gripped by deficit mania. This meant getting votes from at least two Republican senators.
One can debate whether or not Obama got every last dime there was to wheedle out of the Senate. The point is that Congress, not Obama, was the obstacle. The current view that holds Obama responsible for the insufficiently large stimulus rests on ignoring the political atmosphere at the time; it’s like asking why Franklin Roosevelt didn’t enter World War II in 1939, or why Lincoln didn’t call for ending slavery in 1861.
The debate that existed during Obama’s first term was not how much to increase spending in order to bring down unemployment; it was whether spending should be increased at all, or instead cut. The latter view had the support of the public along with much of the mainstream news media, which framed deficits as the country’s most pressing social problem. It had an articulate spokesperson in Paul Ryan, whose purportedly heartfelt interest in fiscal probity drew admiration across the spectrum.
If you could go back ten years in time, and show Obama and Ryan recent news clips about Congress’s response to the current economic crisis — bipartisan passage of a series of bills totaling trillions in relief — neither man would have any doubt whose ideas ultimately won the day.
Trump did try to roll back Obama’s greenhouse-gas regulations. This is part of the now-ordinary push-and-pull of regulations that occurs whenever party control of the White House changes hands. On the whole, though, Obama’s push has gone a lot farther than Trump’s pull. That is not only because Trump’s deregulation was carried out so ham-handedly that courts have overturned his policies at a historic rate. It is also because businesses don’t make long-term investment decisions based on ephemeral regulatory conditions. Firms aren’t going to build a new plant to make gas-guzzlers or energy-hogging appliances if they believe those things will be outlawed in a few years.
Trump of course promised to revive the coal industry and center the American economy on its natural resources. Instead, coal has continued to collapse, and the green-energy transition begun under Obama has churned on. The last budget deal very quietly extended many of Obama’s biggest climate change policies. It increased funding for ARPA-E, the advanced energy research department Obama created in the stimulus. It ratified a ban on hydrofluorocarbons, which Obama negotiated internationally in 2016. And it extended the tax credits for solar and wind energy that were included in the stimulus, and which jumpstarted those industries, which barely existed in 2009, into giants that now employ ten times as many Americans as the fossil-fuel industry.
Trump, to great fanfare, announced he was pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the first comprehensive international agreement to set greenhouse-gas reduction benchmarks. But the framework of the agreement did not collapse, and Biden will reenter it immediately.
Trump did not make any serious headway rolling back Dodd-Frank, repeal of which would have required 60 Senate votes. He did devote his first year to a doomed crusade to repeal Obamacare. His attempt left increased public understanding of, and appreciation for, Obama’s health-care reform, and may have done more than anything else to power the midterm election wave. Obamacare not only survived but became the decisive force in depriving Trump of a governing majority.
Now Trump has been defeated by a man who reminded primary voters of his association with Obama so frequently it became a punchline. His victory refutes the widespread assumption that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 because of (as opposed to despite) her association with the popular Obama.
And Biden is building on Obama’s agenda in almost exactly the same way he would if Obama were beginning a third term. He is reviving the economy (which is in much better shape than the 2009 version) with a huge stimulus. He is proposing to build on Obamacare by bulking up its subsidy levels, adding incentives to cover the people denied access to Medicaid, and attempting to add a public option (which Obama ran on but couldn’t get through Congress.) His climate plan uses the same combination of regulations, green-energy subsidies, and international diplomacy. Biden now has the chance to spend money deploying the green-energy technologies that he and Obama had to prod the market to invent in 2009.
Even before he won the 2016 election, Trump was an important character in my book. It advanced two arguments about him. The first was that his candidacy put the lie to the claims conservatives had made about Obama throughout his presidency. Republicans insisted that the right-wing backlash against him was primarily an expression of principled concern over deficit spending and the extension of executive authority. “The Tea Party,” as conservative intellectual Yuval Levin claimed at the time, has “been intensely focused on recovering the U.S. Constitution, and especially its limits on government power.”
Trump himself realized perfectly well that these abstractions had nothing to do with conservative anger against Obama. His nomination, I argued, revealed how little purchase these principles actually had with the base, and the depths of the bad faith with which the party operated during his two terms.
The last four years have borne this out. If Republicans made a checklist of every complaint they made against Obama, and set out to prove that every one of them was a disingenuous pretext, they would hardly have done anything different. It is difficult even to remember now how serious were the intellectual arguments that swirled around Obama’s energetic and creative uses of government. Trump has put them all to rest.
The second argument I made about Trump was that, in the long run, he would be a wrong turn in American history. “Demagogues and bigots will always have their day,” I argued, but “Obama, not Trump, is destined to supply the model for American governance in the decades to come.”
Now that repudiation I predicted is at hand. Trump has lost the popular vote twice, and been impeached as many times. His approval ratings have sunk to around 30 percent, half the level of where Obama’s stood when he left office. His Republican partners are already whispering they were privately against him all along. His anathematization by social media, corporate America, and other mainstream institutions is a preview of the place he will occupy in the popular imagination. He will join the likes of Andrew Johnson, Joe McCarthy, and George Wallace as an enemy of the civic creed. A century from now, Obama’s name — not Trump’s — will adorn schools, roads, and plazas.
Trump was consumed with envy for his predecessor and obsessed with undoing his work. His failure was nearly total. Even as Trump’s ephemeral imprint on public life — primarily corporate tax cuts that will be rolled back next time a liberal majority has to pay for a social program — evaporates, leaving behind little but a residue of seedy crimes, Obama’s will remain.