Toward the end of their terms, every President turns to thoughts of their ‘legacy’. Naturally, as one enters the end of the term of office, thoughts turn to how they will be remembered and what parts of their time in office will live on after them. Now that it is roughly a month after President Obama left office, it’s only fitting that we look back at his legacy.
If asked, I would imagine that former President Obama would list Obamacare, and likely the impetus for increased regulation of the banking industry including the Dodd-Frank law as his major domestic policy achievements. In the international arena, he has spoken of his pride with the Paris Climate Agreement, signed by over 120 nations.
So what will be President Obama’s legacy? Regardless of what you think of his Presidency and his policies, the short answer is “probably not much”.
So let’s step back to the beginning of his Presidency. For all of the promise of his election, President Obama rode to office on a wave of growing dissatisfaction. The economy was in decline and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were starting to drag on. Obama was a fresh, young face. But among the things he lacked were executive and legislative experience. The combination meant that he had little experience creating coalitions to drum up support for legislation.
It was clear the country wanted change. President Obama took that to hear and moved quickly to make major changes in line with his view of what was most needed. Most noticeably these were in the area of healthcare and reform of the banking industry.
Passage of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, and Dodd-Frank and several related federal regulations happened relatively early in his Presidency when Democrats also controlled both houses of Congress. In the move to get that legislation passed, the President and Democrats in Congress did not want to compromise and so Obamacare passed without any Republican support. Similarly with Dodd-Frank, there was little Republican support in passing the legislation. Both of these landmark pieces of legislation became law almost exclusively with support from the President’s own party.
Later is the Obama Administration, control of Congress had switched parties and the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. To get something done, the President would have to work on a bi-partisan basis. However, he became frustrated that his agenda wasn’t moving as he wanted. The President, who was a former constitutional law professor, famously said “I’ve got a pen…and I can use that pen to sign executive orders” and said he would go around Congress if they wouldn’t pass the legislation he thought was needed. And he did so, attempting to induce change through several sweeping executive orders.
Most notably to his legacy was the Paris Climate Agreement. In a questionable move, President Obama—the former constitutional law professor–said he could implement the treaty by executive order rather than getting approval of the Senate as outlined in the Constitution (which requires that any international treaty be ratified by the Senate with a 2/3 vote) and worked to make it government policy. Again, because the President decided to move forward and not compromise or limit the goals he saw as necessary to reach this international agreement, he did so without getting bi-partisan support.
So, fast forward to last month when President Obama left office and a new President took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. What will be President Obama’s policy legacy? What will endure from his time in office?
Very little. Republicans have long made the repeal of Obamacare their goal and campaign issues. Similarly, with the regulations and myriad of government agencies created with Dodd-Frank. Because those were passed with little Republican support, now that Republicans are the majority in both the House and the Senate, there are few on the Republican side of the aisle that have any interest in trying to preserve something they had no part in passing. Because there was little compromise, and little need or desire to broaden support when that legislation was passed, there is no one left with much incentive to preserve it when elections being another party to power, as always happens from time to time. The lack of legislative experience in building coalitions and because compromise was not needed to get Obamacare passed originally means that it will get repealed likely without much compromise now that another party is in control of Congress.
Similarly, most of the executive actions taken by the President and his Administration in the latter part of his term of office will get repealed. Even if one accepts that the Paris Climate Treaty could be implemented by executive order of President Obama, then it can be undone by executive order of President Trump. And President Obama’s bold statements, born out of his frustration, to go around Congress with the stroke of his pen when he could, will be undone with the stroke of a pen now that he is out of office.
Sometimes the checks and balances of our system of government can be frustrating and sometimes things move ponderously slow. But the masterful part of that is when it does move and the moves are done with broad support, at least ‘meeting in the middle’ enough to get a cross section of support from across the political spectrum, then there is real action. Unfortunately for President Obama, years ago his legacy’s lifespan was sealed to last only as long as Democrats remained in power. Though passing laws without having to compromise means you get more of what you want, getting little to no support outside his party also meant that there were few who had any interest, much less desire, to defend those same laws once President Obama and Democrats no longer were in control of the White House and Congress. As a result, there won’t be much left of President Obama’s policy legacy in four years.