On the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised to rip up the legacy of Barack Obama’s eight years in office. Obamacare? Consider it repealed. The Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accords? Dead. The Clean Power Plan, Dodd-Frank regulations, renewal of diplomatic relations with Cuba and protections for millions of undocumented kids? All gone. Obamas’ staffers, and the architects of his achievements, braced to see their work erased.
But six months into Trump’s presidency, Obama’s legacy is proving more resilient than even some in his administration expected. Trump has taken symbolic stands against many of Obama’s biggest policy achievements, but has unwound few of them. Just this week, he recertified that Iran was complying with the nuclear deal—a necessary requirement to keep the deal in place. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans struggled to reach an agreement on any kind of health care repeal, leaving Obamacare so far intact as the law of the land.
Even where Trump has appeared to strike significant blows to Obama’s legacy, the details tell a different story. He withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal—but Congress had never actually ratified the deal, and Hillary Clinton also intended to withdraw from it. Trump did announce that he would exit the Paris climate accords, but that exit is unlikely to actually happen until after the next presidential election; in the meantime, the rest of the world remains committed to the pact. In June, Trump flew to Miami for a high-profile announcement rolling back Obama’s historic opening to Cuba but it wasn’t much of a rollback; the main pillars of the agreement remain in place.
“So far, the signature achievements of the Obama administration seem very much alive and well,” said Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
So how much of Obama’s policy legacy is surviving? That’s inherently a subjective question: Trump’s bellicose, culturally inflammatory rhetoric has certainly changed the domestic political conversation, and his agencies have begun to roll back much of Obama’s regulatory legacy. But it’s possible to assess some of Obama’s biggest standalone achievements:
Obamacare. No issue defined Obama’s presidency more than his health care law, which Republicans have spent seven years promising to repeal. But so far, those promises have come up empty. GOP leaders wanted to repeal and replace Obamacare in the first few months of the year. But they underestimated the political support for the law and overestimated their members’ ability to come to basic agreements on what they wanted instead. At this point, the chances that Trump signs a healthcare bill look slim, although conservatives say they are confident that something will eventually pass, even if it leaves chunks of Obamacare still in place. “I’m disappointed we haven’t seen Obamacare repealed and a tax cut passed,” said Steve Moore, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation who was an informal economic adviser to Trump during the campaign. Moore still thinks Republicans could pass a repeal bill, and if he’s right, the former president’s legacy will look far different.
Paris climate deal. After the United States completed negotiations of the Paris climate agreement in December 2015, Obama knew his work wasn’t done: He also wanted to make sure enough countries ratified it so that it came into force. At that point, according to the terms of the agreement, the U.S. would be unable to withdraw until November 2020. This guaranteed that if a GOP president announced that he intended to withdraw from the pact, climate would become a top campaign issue in the 2020 election.
That’s exactly what Trump did on June 1 when he announced that he did intend to withdraw, delighting many conservatives and angering Democrats who said it was a rejection of global leadership. Despite his announcement, U.S. is likely to remain in the deal for the next three years. Trump does have one other option to remove the U.S. from the Paris deal immediately: Pull out of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the umbrella agreement under which all these negotiations take place. But he hasn’t taken that step, so the U.S. technically remains in the Paris deal even as other countries take on the mantle of leadership on climate change.
Iran. Over and over on the campaign, Trump called the Iran nuclear agreement the “worst deal ever.” But since taking office, he appears to have decided that ending the deal would be worse than keeping it. Twice—first in April and then again on Monday—Trump officially certified that Iran is upholding its responsibilities under the nuclear deal. But the Trump administration has also taken a tough line with Tehran, imposing new sanctions on individuals connected with Iran’s ballistic missile program and publicly blasting the Islamic Republic for its human rights abuses. Such actions mark a break with Obama’s policy, but the nuclear agreement remains in place.
The Clean Power Plan. The focal point of Obama’s domestic climate legacy is the Clean Power Plan, which he announced in August 2015. The regulation is aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants and requires states to meet certain emissions targets, but due to lawsuits the rule never took effect. So far Trump hasn’t rolled back Obama’s plan, though he’s strongly signaled he intends to repeal it, and the administrative gears are turning: He directed the Environmental Protection Agency to review the plan; the EPA has already finished that review and sent its resulting rule, which is expected to recommend repeal, to the White House for review. If Trump follows through and repeals the Clean Power Plan, it will be a real blow for Obama’s climate legacy.
Immigration. Obama has a complicated history on immigration, having deported more people than any other president, infuriating activists who labeled him the “deporter-in-chief.” But later in his presidency, he implemented a new immigration directive under which nearly 90 percent of undocumented immigrants weren’t considered priorities for deportation. And he also created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has protected millions of undocumented kids from deportation. Trump has partially reversed that legacy by directing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to draw up new priorities that cast a much wider net and stepping up the number of deportations. But the president has also disappointed immigration hardliners in one key way: He’s left DACA in place.
Cuba. Over the last few years of his presidency, Obama renewed diplomatic relations with the island, relaxing rules on travel and commerce. Trump vowed to end those policies as president and made a big show of doing so in a June speech in Miami. Only one problem: Much of Obama’s opening is unaffected by Trump’s executive order; he isn’t closing the embassy in Havana or stopping the burgeoning relations between the countries.
Wall Street regulations. Obama’s legacy also includes Dodd-Frank, the financial regulatory law passed in the wake of the financial crisis that imposed new rules on banks and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. While Trump promised during the campaign to dismantle Dodd-Frank, the law was never at risk of repeal, since many changes would require Democratic votes to overcome a filibuster.
But Trump has also backpedaled on his disdain for the law. In June, the Treasury Department released its first of a series of reports on financial regulations, proposing to make targeted changes to Dodd-Frank but leaving its broad structure in place. The law isn’t exactly safe: Republicans are still looking to change the law through reconciliation, which allows them to make tax and spending changes with just a simple majority, and regulators have some authority to weaken some Obama-era financial regulations on banks. But the law isn’t at risk of being “dismantled.” It’s here to stay.
NOW WHAT? TRUMP can’t abolish Obamacare from the White House, but as president, he still has the power to unilaterally blow up many of Obama’s biggest achievements. He could cut off the cost-sharing subsidies for low-income Americans, which health care experts say would almost certainly cause the Obamacare markets to collapse. He could pull out of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, stop the DACA program and end the historic opening to Cuba in its entirety. Each of these actions would be extreme, akin to pressing a nuclear button for the given issue, but they are entirely within Trump’s power. So far, though, he has declined to press the button.
Democrats and Republicans alike attribute that to the realities of governing. It’s easy to make promises on the campaign trail, but following through on those promises is a different story: It means taking responsibility for the human consequences and political fallout from those moves.
“President Trump has encountered something that many presidents encounter in their first year,” said Josh Earnest, Obama’s former press secretary. “There’s a big difference between promising to do something at a campaign rally and actually dealing with the consequences of it when you are sitting in the Oval Office.”
These kinds of changes also require attention from the administration and a willingness to navigate the government bureaucracy, attributes that have been lacking in the first six months of the Trump administration. Said Earnest, “It’s clear that the Obama legacy would have faced a much greater threat from a much more competent and disciplined president.”
There is one major area where Trump has succeeded in undoing Obama’s legacy: the regulatory state. Congressional Republicans passed—and Trump signed—14 bills rolling back Obama-era regulations using the little-known Congressional Review Act, which allowed Senate Republicans to repeal recently-issued regulations with a majority vote. The Federal Communications Commission has begun rescinding Obama’s net neutrality rules, the Labor Department appears poised to undo the fiduciary standard and the Environmental Protection Agency has targeted dozens of Obama climate regulations. Other Obama rules that are likely dead include the DOL’s overtime rule and the Department of Education’s rules targeting for-profit colleges. In addition, the regulatory state itself has nearly come to a standstill, with the White House regulatory office approving few significant regulations.
Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, trumpeted those rollbacks as major achievements for the Trump administration, a death-by-a-thousand cuts to Obama’s regulatory legacy. “These were huge, multi-billion dollar rollbacks,” he said of the 14 CRA bills.
Obama’s legacy was also expected to include a third Supreme Court justice pick, after Antonin Scalia died suddenly in early 2016. But in perhaps Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s biggest gift to him, Trump got the pick instead—and installed Neil Gorsuch on the Court. In just a few months, Gorsuch has proven to be one of the most conservative jurists, siding with the right on guns and gay rights; in comparison, Obama’s pick, Merrick Garland, would have likely given the court a liberal lean. The stakes are huge: As Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.). said, “A Supreme Court appointment lasts well beyond the length of any presidency.”