The Obama legacy continues to fade. As Thinking Man first wrote in February in President Obama’s Legacy, the approach to governance taken by former President Obama largely determined what form his legacy would take. This week, President Trump reversed many of the Obama-era policies regarding Cuba, further eroding the Obama legacy.
Despite being a former constitutional law professor, Obama was frustrated even more than most Presidents about having to work with Congress to get his agenda passed, more so after his first two years when he lost the overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress. When he did not get what he wanted, he famously said “I have a pen”, meaning that he would try to bypass Congress by using executive orders to implement his policies.
Though several of his orders were challenged in court by Congress, President Obama signed orders on sweeping environmental regulations, blocked the Keystone Pipeline, and dropped the embargo on Cuba. He joined the Paris climate treaty without sending it to Congress as required by the Constitution by saying it wasn’t a ‘treaty’ but an ‘agreement’, similarly with the nuclear treaty with Iran.
President Obama chose not to try to build relationships with Congress, so much so that even Democratic lawmakers grew frustrated with him. His lack of experience in building governing coalitions and his short time in Congress left him with few relationships he could draw on. As a result when time came that he needed to find allies in Congress to get his agenda passed, he found few ready to change their minds to help.
But one of the drawbacks of going it alone, and trying to rule through executive order is that the next President can change anything you have done. When you live by the executive order, your legacy dies by executive order. And so it goes.
In the first week of his Presidency, Trump immediately issued his own executive orders doing away with many of Obama’s orders. Since that time, President Trump also has withdrawn from the Paris climate, has changed his orders on the Keystone Pipeline and has changed Obama’s initiatives to Cuba.
Regardless of whether you tend to agree with President Obama or President Trump, President Obama’s approach to governing—using ‘his pen’ rather than working with Congress—ensured that his legacy would last only as long as someone who agreed with him was President. Now, six months into a new Administration, there is little left of Obama’s legacy. The only significant item left half a year after Obama left office is the Obamacare healthcare act, which even if not replaced by new legislation will die of its own weight, as most major insurers are leaving the Obamacare healthcare exchanges. Soon there will be nothing left, of Obamacare insurers or Obama’s legacy.