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Is Trump Delivering On His Promises To Reverse Obama’s Policies?

A year into his term, President Trump has not yet completely dismantled President Barack Obama’s signature achievements, many of which Trump pledged to get rid of during the real estate mogul’s presidential campaign. But he has chipped away at several of them, and Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday suggested that he will not give up on getting rid of Obama-era policies that he strongly opposes.

In September, I came up with an informal list of Obama’s top 10 policy achievements, relying on the Obama White House’s descriptions of his key accomplishments, several media outlets’ lists of Obama’s biggest successes, the views of authors of books on the Obama presidency, and my own analysis. Obama enacted thousands of laws, executive orders and other administrative guidance in his eight years, so this list is far from a full picture of his presidency.

Since September, I’ve found four general patterns:

  • A subset of the 10 achievements that Trump either can’t or hasn’t tried to affect very much (or wouldn’t want to)
  • One that is still in place but might be overhauled dramatically very soon
  • A couple that Trump has changed modestly but whose core policy remains
  • A couple that have been largely stalled by Trump but that a future Democratic president could easily put it back into place.

The Obama policies that aren’t being reversed (or can’t be)

  1. The 2009 economic stimulus and the drop in the unemployment rate that followed it.
  2. The bailout of the auto companies.
  3. The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” allowing openly gay and lesbian Americans to serve in the U.S. military.
  4. The drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.
  5. The killing of Osama bin Laden.

Some of these policies — the bailout, bin Laden, the stimulus — can’t really be reversed.

With gay rights, the Obama years were in some ways the culmination of America’s growing acceptance of its LGBTQ population, and the debate over who can serve in the military has now moved to transgender Americans, whom Trump and other conservatives want to keep out of the armed forces.

Trump has increased the U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan from when Obama left office. But the troop levels (less than 30,000 in those two countries combined) are a far cry from when Obama took over in 2009 (more than 34,000 in Afghanistan and 139,000 in Iraq).

The Obama policy that is still in place — but may not be for long

  1. The agreement reached between Iran, the U.S. and five other nations to attempt to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.

The U.S. has not yet re-imposed sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of the nuclear agreement. But Trump’s frustrations with the Iran deal and calls to rewrite its terms suggest that the president will at some point attempt to get the U.S. out of the agreement. If Trump re-imposes sanctions and the Iranians in turn stop allowing inspections of their nuclear facilities, re-creating the nuclear agreement won’t be easy for a future president. A Trump policy shift here could have lasting impact, unlike with some of the other Obama policies I discuss below.

Areas in which Trump is making big changes but the core Obama policy remains

  1. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
  2. The Dodd-Frank bill that increased regulation of big banks and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The Trump-backed effort to repeal the ACA did not succeed. So insurers can’t charge higher prices to people with illnesses, and young adults can stay on their parents’ plans until age 26. Failing to overturn the ACA left Medicaid intact for the nearly 12 million people in 32 states who qualify under the law’s expansion of the program.

That said, in December, Republicans and Trump, as part of the new tax law, got rid of the requirement in the ACA that most Americans purchase health insurance or pay a fine. Some health experts believe that the repeal of the individual mandate, along with Trump administration regulatory changes allowing the sale of some health insurance plans that don’t comply with the rules of Obamacare, could inject considerable instability into the individual marketplaces that were created by the law and drive premiums up. That hurts people who don’t qualify for subsidies to buy private insurance under the law and could push even more insurers out over time (many insurers had already left, even before 2017).

On Medicaid, the Trump administration is allowing states to require people who are working-age and are not disabled or pregnant to get a job1 or lose benefits. The policy is expected to work as intended and result in large reductions in enrollment. (Kentucky, the first state to have work requirements approved, estimates that it will have 100,000 fewer people on the Medicaid rolls.)

All of that adds up to an erosion of Obamacare that hasn’t voided the fundamental policy — at least so far.

Similarly, the changes that Dodd-Frank made to how banks operate remain on the books. But the Trump administration is taking steps to blunt the law’s impact. The most notable move in that direction was Trump’s appointment of his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. As a congressman, Mulvaney said he opposed the creation of the agency; now, he is expected to stop it from imposing new rules and regulations on businesses.

But there’s a big factor holding Trump back here: The ACA and Dodd-Frank are laws passed by Congress. To reverse them, Republicans would need to repeal their provisions or pass laws that severely limit their effects. But on Dodd-Frank, that requires 60 Senate votes, and the GOP has only 51. On health care, even after the Republicans used a procedural process that would have allowed them to repeal the Affordable Care Act with only 51 votes, they couldn’t agree on specific legislation that would do so.

With Trump’s high disapproval ratings, the GOP is likely only to lose seats in Congress at this point. So the Republicans may have lost their chance to get rid of these laws. That means that in the short term, states like California and New York will continue to implement the ACA even if the federal government does not. In the long term, the next Democratic president is likely to fully implement the ACA and Dodd-Frank if those laws are still in place.

Obama achievements that have had big changes, with potential for full reversals

  1. The 200-nation Paris climate change agreement that Obama helped negotiate and the slew of additional environmental initiatives that were promulgated through new rules and provisions in the stimulus.
  2. The normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba.

On the environment, the Obama administration supported initiatives that were embraced by other nations, the private sector, or both. Liberal cities and states and nations are largely still embracing Obama-style environmentalism. He was positioning the U.S. to lead the world in combating climate change, including through a reduced reliance on coal as an energy source and an emphasis on natural gas, comprehensive efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and increased energy efficiency standards for household appliances.

That said, Trump is rolling back numerous rules and regulations created by the Environmental Protection Agency under Obama. And even though Obama had signaled that the U.S. would be a world leader in fighting climate change, Trump has moved in the opposite direction, announcing that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement.

On Cuba, Obama broke with decades of U.S. foreign policy to normalize relations with Cuba and was the first president to visit the island since the 1920s. The American Embassy is still open in Havana.

That said, the Trump administration has discouraged Americans from traveling to Cuba, pulled many diplomats from the embassy and imposed a number of limits on U.S citizens’ ability to do business with Cuban officials.

Unlike the ACA and Dodd-Frank, these policies are not laws. Even though a Democratic president could easily restore Obama’s positions, Trump has basically suspended them for now, and if he’s president for eight years, I suspect that he will essentially undo them.

It’s important to emphasize that Trump has been president for only one year, so it’s not surprising that he has not overturned large parts of Obama’s policy accomplishments. At the same time, if Obama’s ethos was about projecting a desire to cooperate with other nations abroad and combining multiculturalism and liberal economic policy at home, Trump is reversing that. And on some issues outside of the 10 embodied by my list of Obama accomplishments, the reversal is more complete.2

I didn’t expect Trump to reverse many Obama initiatives in his first year, but that Trump and congressional Republicans spent so much time on Obamacare without passing a repeal was also a bit surprising. So Trump is 0 for 10 right now in terms of getting rid of Obama’s key achievements. But the groundwork has been laid for Trump to reverse or substantially change five of these policies, particularly if he were to serve two terms.


  1. Or a “community engagement” activity.

  2. The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan news outlet that tracks criminal justice policy, wrote recently that Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have been very successful in dismantling Obama initiatives in that policy area, for instance.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.