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Trump Hasn’t Dismantled Obama’s Legacy Yet — And May Not Ever

Sometimes it seems as though President Trump is rapidly reversing much of what Barack Obama did as president. But he really isn’t — at least not yet.

The Trump administration recently rescinded an Obama program that shielded young adults who were brought to the U.S. as children from deportation (known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and announced that it would overhaul the Obama administration’s guidelines on how universities investigate accusations of sexaul assault.

But we can only really determine whether Trump is tearing down the Obama legacy if we have some way of measuring that legacy in the first place. Obama signed more than 1,000 provisions into law during his eight years as president. His administration created more than 7,000 “significant” rules and regulations through its executive power, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. And he reached several major agreements with nations abroad.

I tried to come up with a list of Obama’s most important accomplishments as a way to more systematically explore whether Trump is gutting his predecessor’s legacy. This is admittedly a subjective exercise — there is no real quantifiable measure for determining whether one policy achievement is more important than another. And I opted to focus on what might be defined as “positive achievements,” the kinds of things that Obama and his supporters would point to as goals that they wanted to achieve and did, regardless of how others might view them. (In other words, a Syria policy that even some liberals consider a failure is a legacy of Obama’s presidency, but not really an achievement.)

To create this list, I first consulted a letter that Obama wrote to the American public and posted on the website Medium on Jan. 5, just before he left office. It was essentially a laundry list of policies that he had enacted and that he seemed to be proud of, although the letter did not specifically number or rank these accomplishments. I also looked at a few detailed lists of Obama’s accomplishments that were compiled by media outlets (here are Teen Vogue’s top 21, GOOD Magazine’s 28 Obama accomplishments, and Washington Monthly’s top 50).1 I also consulted with New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait and Politico reporter Michael Grunwald, who have written books on Obama’s policy legacy.

Below is a kind of top 10 Obama accomplishments, focusing on achievements that were cited in all the lists and could reasonably be attributed to him.

A few notes on what I included: While the list-makers and the president himself all noted that same-sex marriage became national law under Obama, the U.S. Supreme Court made the consequential ruling. Also, the president and some list-makers referenced his historic Supreme Court picks (the third and fourth women to serve on the court and the first Hispanic), but those justices essentially maintained the status quo of the court from a policy perspective, since they both replaced liberal-leaning predecessors. So my list doesn’t have either of those.

Conversely, the media lists and the president’s letter did not feature what is perhaps Obama’s most important and obvious achievement: being the first black person to win the nation’s highest office. While his election and re-election are hugely important in American history, I left them off because they were not at root policy achievements. I similarly omitted the other inclusion achievements of the administration, almost too numerous to count, that include the first openly gay Army secretary and first and second black attorneys generals.

The achievements in my top 10 are ordered chronologically, although some did not have a clear start or end date:

  1. The 2009 economic stimulus and the drop in the unemployment rate that followed it.
  2. The bailout of the auto companies.
  3. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
  4. The Dodd-Frank bill that increased regulation of big banks and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
  5. The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” that allowed openly gay and lesbian Americans to serve in the U.S. military.
  6. The killing of Osama bin Laden.
  7. The drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.
  8. The agreement reached between Iran, the U.S. and five other nations to attempt to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.
  9. The normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba.
  10. 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.

A review of this list shows how much of what Obama achieved can’t be unwound by Trump simply because we are in a different time in history:

  • The stimulus was a specific policy in response to the economic crisis.
  • Ditto for the auto bailout.
  • The country has moved leftward on gay rights, with gay marriage now recognized as a constitutional right. So it’s very unlikely that Trump will try to reimpose the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. (In a sign of that shift, Trump is instead seeking to limit new recruits to the military who are openly transgender.)
  • Osama bin Laden isn’t coming back to life.
  • It’s difficult to see Trump returning the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan to anywhere near the levels — 140,000 in Iraq and 33,000 in Afghanistan — that existed when Obama took office. Although Obama didn’t succeed in his stated goal of bringing all the troops home, he lowered the numbers to about 6,000 in Iraq and 8,400 in Afghanistan by the time he left. Trump has recently committed to boosting the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, but there are now only about 11,000 U.S. troops there.

That’s five of 10 major Obama accomplishments that are more or less etched in stone. The other half could in theory be unwound. Indeed, it is the official policy of the Republican Party, as stated in the party’s platform, to reverse Obama’s initiatives on Cuba and Iran, end U.S. participation in the Paris agreement, and repeal Dodd-Frank and Obamacare.

But so far, even the easier achievements to get rid of haven’t gone anywhere. The new president is essentially 0 for 3, with two incompletes.

You’re familiar with the Republican failure to repeal Obamacare. Trump has also spoken of his dissatisfaction with the Iran deal but has not withdrawn the U.S. from it. In June, Republicans in the House passed a bill to roll back parts of Dodd-Frank, but that provision has little chance of becoming law, because that would require 60 votes in the Senate and Democrats oppose it. So that’s three areas in which Obama’s legacy, at least for now, remains in place.

In June, Trump declared, “I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” But the policy that Trump announced that day was far short of a full reversal of Obama’s moves: Embassies in Havana and Washington remain open, new flights and cruises to Cuba are still operating and formal diplomatic relations between the two governments continue. (Trump did make it harder for American tourists to go to Cuba and U.S. businesses to operate there.) Trump seems potentially headed toward a full reversal of that major Obama initiative. But he’s not there yet, so that one is incomplete.

Similarly, on the environment, Trump made a much-ballyhooed announcement that the United States was withdrawing from the Paris agreement. But he didn’t totally unwind Obama’s work there either. First, Obama and his administration worked hard to make the Paris agreement a worldwide deal, so the U.S. withdrawal does not by itself destroy the agreement. Trump’s announcement has not yet caused a stampede of other nations to pull out, with China, France and Germany in particular recommitting to the agreement even after the new American president declared his opposition to it. Secondly, because of the rules of the agreement, the United States cannot officially withdraw from the Paris deal until Nov. 4, 2020. Trump could withdraw that day, but a President Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders might be elected the day before, on Nov. 3, 2020, on a pledge to keep the U.S. in the agreement.

And the wind and solar power initiatives that Obama championed appear not to be under any threat from Trump’s team, probably because these policies aren’t viewed as punitive, unlike the perception of Obama’s regulations on coal.

I don’t want to deny what you are seeing with your own eyes: Trump is unwinding many, many Obama policies. DACA is suspended; Trump’s Department of Justice is pulling back from some of the aggressive scrutiny of voter ID laws and police departments of the Obama era; and the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which Obama opposed, has been green-lighted.

But there are two important caveats. First, there’s a reason you might think Trump is unwinding a great deal of Obama’s legacy: media coverage. The press generally covers stories of conflict and stories of change, not stories about the status quo being maintained with little drama.

Secondly, it’s important to think precisely about Obama’s accomplishments. If Obama’s team adopted more than 7,000 rules and regulations in eight years, Trump’s team would have to stall or slow about 900 initiatives every year over the same number of years — meaning Trump would need two terms — to really destroy Obama’s regulatory efforts.

I would not say DACA is just one of 7,000 regulations. It was an important policy of the Obama administration. But in his Jan. 5 letter, the president himself did not describe DACA as an accomplishment. Instead, he wrote that “commonsense immigration reform” was something “I wish we’d been able to do.”

Indeed, Trump was able to unwind DACA so easily because it was not signed into law. Four of the 10 major accomplishments of Obama on our list were passed by Congress, which means they are harder to get rid of than executive actions.

To roll back Obama’s more durable accomplishments would require political skill and stamina from Trump, with assists from others. Right now, it’s hard to envision that from the Republicans in Congress, who are struggling to get anything done; Trump’s own top national security aides seem to disagree with his inclination to gut the Iran deal.

So Obama’s legacy seems pretty safe right now. Maybe that’s why the former president looks so chipper whenever he emerges in public.

Footnotes

  1. Major newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times did not produce lists in this format.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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