USA Politics Focus

Was Barack Obama a transformative president?

Patterns of thought

Trump threatens to undo key parts of Obama's legacy, but there are elements he can never take away.

President Obama listens as Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a ceremony in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington last Thursday.
Susan Walsh/AP
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Caption

When Donald Trump takes the oath of office on Friday, the Republican takeover of Washington will be complete – signaling a sharp departure from eight years of President Obama. 

In many ways, the Trump era has already launched. The new Congress has begun the process of repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Legislators are preparing to roll back a raft of federal regulations on such areas as overtime pay and funding for Planned Parenthood. Nominees for the incoming cabinet are poised for confirmation, despite some tough questioning from senators.

Conservatives are joyful, liberals despondent. But Obama’s domestic legacy runs deep, and will be more difficult to uproot than both sides seem to believe, analysts say. Popular elements of the ACA, a.k.a. Obamacare, may well survive. Ditto changes to the tax code that have helped low-income Americans. On immigration, both Mr. Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan have suggested law-abiding “dreamers” won’t be deported.

And at its most fundamental, there’s nothing Trump can do to take away Obama’s most profound legacy: his election, and reelection, as the first African American president of the United States.

“That will always be the first line about him in textbooks, the first line about him in his obituary – our first black president,” says David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

So, perhaps unique among all 43 American presidents who followed George Washington, Obama’s mere election guaranteed a singular role in United States history, before even taking office.

But Obama made clear throughout his first campaign that getting elected for its own sake wasn’t his goal. He wanted to change the nation’s trajectory, as President Reagan had, he told a newspaper in Reno, Nev., early in 2008.

It was that seemingly boundless aspiration to be a transformative leader, combined with his skills as an orator, that won Obama the presidency. Now, eight years later, he faces the judgments of historians, pundits, and the public. Assessments vary widely, and will continue to evolve for generations to come. But for now, the notion of Obama as a transformative president is probably a stretch.

For all the audacity that he brought to his first campaign in 2008, once he assumed office, he often leaned toward caution – even in his first two years, when Democrats held the reins in Washington.

In crafting the ACA, for example, he worked within the existing private health-insurance system rather than offering more fundamental change. The same could be said of the financial crisis of 2008-09, in which Obama did more to rescue the old system than to change it, liberal activists complain.

“President Obama is someone who is temperamentally very ambitious but also very cautious,” says Professor Greenberg. “And I think the caution in some ways accounts for the disappointments some people have felt – that he didn’t deliver transformation, he didn’t deliver the kind of radical change that some of his most Kool-Aid-drunk supporters expected back in 2008.”

After an electoral rout in his first midterm elections put him on the defensive, Obama turned to unilateral action. His aggressive use of executive actions to enact policy, bypassing Congress, led to charges of an “imperial presidency.”

The hyperpartisan atmosphere that Obama walked into on Day 1 only grew worse, despite his campaign promise to unite the country.

In the end, Obama as president was both a singular figure and a party of one – unique in American history but also a man who neither won over his opponents nor built up his allies.

Many analysts say he failed to build bridges on Capitol Hill. “Obama was bipartisan, in that he lacked the temperament to work with either party in Congress,” says historian David Pietrusza.  

Others, such as Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institution, argue that even a legislative master like Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton may well have struggled amid the prevailing partisan polarization.

Either way, as he leaves office, Obama has a lot going for him: youth, a strong job approval rating (in the mid-50s), and a plan for continued involvement in public life. His personal brand is intact. But his inability to build a broad coalition around his greatest domestic achievements leaves his legacy in peril.

Dismantling Obama's legacy

In an interview with Fox News last April, Obama named his biggest accomplishment in seven words: “Saving the economy from a great depression.”

Emergency measures by the new president, as well as those by his predecessor, George W. Bush, staunched the nation’s economic freefall. But some, including a record stimulus package passed just on Democratic votes, sparked a political backlash, giving rise to the populist anti-tax tea party movement.

It was to be one of several achievements that only hardened partisan lines. Passage of the ACA in 2010 added big-government tinder to the fire, and in the November midterms, Democrats lost control of Congress – for the rest of Obama’s presidency, it turned out. Now it faces a repeal in Congress.

The Dodd-Frank banking regulations, also passed in 2010, are another Trump target, as is the Pacific-rim trade deal Obama backed.

But there’s a maxim in politics: It’s possible to deny people things, but it’s almost impossible to take things away.

Some parts of the Obama legacy will be easier to dismantle than others. The Pacific trade deal is clearly dead, but Dodd-Frank might be difficult to unwind, analysts say. Meanwhile, some elements of the ACA could prove politically impossible to take away. The provision allowing adult children up to age 26 to stay on their parents’ plan is one. The requirement that insurance companies take all customers, regardless of preexisting conditions, is another.

Over the weekend, Trump told The Washington Post his goal is “insurance for everybody” – a tall order.

“One can well imagine more than just parts of the ACA surviving,” says historian Robert Dallek. “Remember, President Reagan never did get rid of food stamps or close the Department of Education.”

The imperial presidency 

Obama’s aggressive use of executive power may be one of his most consequential legacies, as he cedes the Oval Office to a businessman used to getting what he wants and new to the arcane ways of Congress.

Obama did not start this “massive gravitational shift” of power to the presidency, says Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. But he has accelerated it.

Whether helping certain categories of illegal immigrants or ordering up rafts of new rules and regulations by government agencies, Obama has relied on his “pen and phone” to get things done ever since Republicans retook Congress.

First, there are legal questions. The Supreme Court unanimously struck down Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, a narrowing of presidential power.

But the larger problem with relying on executive authority is that it’s easy to reverse. Trump has promised to wipe out stacks of Obama orders with the stroke of a pen.

Obama’s approach was short-sighted, says Professor Turley, who reminded Democratic senators repeatedly in congressional testimony, “in case anyone forgot, that [Obama] would not be the last president.”

In addition, Congress is gearing up to deploy an obscure law, called the Congressional Review Act, that will allow it to rescind more than 150 government regulations adopted since late May.

Still, for Obama, the various channels for executive authority have provided a way to create facts on the ground and push the envelope on policy in the face of congressional intransigence.

On immigration, Obama’s legacy of protecting people from deportation who came to the US illegally as children may, in fact, survive in some fashion.

Trump has promised to rescind Obama’s executive actions on immigration, but has stated publicly that he wants to help the young illegal immigrants known as “dreamers.”

“We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” Trump said in a Time magazine interview.

Speaker Ryan has echoed that message. When asked by a young mother, also a dreamer, at a recent CNN town hall if he thought she should be deported, Ryan replied, “No.”

“First of all, I can see that you love your daughter and you are a nice person who has a great future ahead of you,” he said, “and I hope that your future is here.”

The first black president 

No aspect of Obama’s tenure has raised more expectations and attracted more scrutiny than his role as the first black president. He lifted the hopes of millions of African Americans, and of a nation long striving to overcome its ugly racial past.

In the end, Obama was bound to disappoint. In his early years, he was mostly guarded on racial matters, wanting to be perceived as the president of all Americans, not just black America. As the years wore on, he opened up – speaking out on the killings of young black men and launching his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which aims to help young men of color lead productive lives.

Perhaps inevitably, Obama faced a backlash, exposing not just the racism still extant in the nation but also the frustrations of some leading black voices who felt Obama should do more for African Americans. Still others felt Obama used his race as a political tool to sow divisions and motivate his supporters.

Obama is, of course, unique. He had to bear the particular expectations of black Americans on top of the already-daunting duties of the presidency. And in a fundamental way, his presidency addressed some of the most pernicious claims of racism, political analysts say.

“Hopefully, Barack Obama’s presidency settled the question of whether people of color can govern or are capable of being president,” says Andra Gillespie, an expert on black politics at Emory University in Atlanta.

When asked to assess Obama’s legacy as the first black president, African American scholar Robert C. Smith strikes the tone of a realist: “I would say Obama did the best he could on race, given the resources at his disposal, the political climate, public opinion, and Congress.”

Professor Smith, a political scientist at San Francisco State University, points to Obama’s use of executive orders to make “modest advancements” in affirmative action in the federal bureaucracy and in higher education, as well as criminal justice and on housing desegregation.

In addition, he notes, the ACA disproportionately benefited black people – a not-insignificant result of the law.

But Obama was rhetorically reticent. “To the extent his policies had any kind of racial bias or favoritism, I don’t think he wished to emphasize that,” says Smith.

In that way, Obama converted minority voters to his political brand but failed to leave a legacy that would continue to draw them to his party.

Hillary Clinton’s failure to beat Trump last November cost Obama his surest vehicle to lock in his legacy. But the “Obama coalition” of minority voters, young voters, and single women didn’t turn out in big enough numbers for her.

In fact, the Democratic Party atrophied significantly during Obama’s eight years in office. He gave more energy and attention to his own activist group, Organizing for America, than to the Democratic National Committee. Democratic representation in Congress, governorships, and state legislatures has taken a big hit. How can he protect his legacy without a party structure? Democrats ask.

The next two years will begin to offer an answer. 

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