Democrats are attacking President Trump for “dismantling” President Obama’s legacy on everything from Obamacare subsidies to immigration amnesty, but nobody knew better than Mr. Obama how vulnerable his go-it-alone agenda would be if Mr. Trump won the election.
Unable to work with a Republican-led Congress for most of his presidency, Mr. Obama did what he could with his presidential “pen and phone,” issuing executive orders, rules and regulations that in many cases could be overturned by another stroke of the pen — this time by a Republican president. Long before Mr. Obama left office, Republicans were accusing him of overreaching presidential authority, and Mr. Trump was vowing to overturn his unilateral decisions.
At a Clinton campaign rally in Cleveland in October 2016, a few weeks before Election Day, Mr. Obama tried to fire up Democratic voters with a plea that his legacy was hanging in the balance on issues such as climate change and health care.
“I’m here to tell you that all that progress goes out the window if we don’t make the right choice right now,” Mr. Obama said at the time. “Donald Trump’s closing argument is ‘What do you have to lose?’ The answer is: Everything. All the progress we’ve made right now is on the ballot.”
Among the actions Mr. Trump has taken since Jan. 20 are pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement (a U.N. accord never ratified by Congress), revoking deportation amnesty for young illegal immigrants called “Dreamers” (to Republicans’ complaints that he was exceeding his authority, Mr. Obama dared lawmakers: “Pass a bill”), decertifying the Iran nuclear deal (and requesting more congressional input), ending government subsidy payments to insurance companies under Obamacare (never approved by Congress), and rolling back about 800 other Obama-era government regulations on a broad front, including portions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law.
Asked at an impromptu news conference Monday if there were any Obama policies he would like to keep, Mr. Trump replied, “Not too many, I must say. It’s the opposite side of the spectrum.
“We’re very opposite in terms of incentives for jobs and other things,” he said of Mr. Obama.
While other presidents have rescinded policies of their predecessors, the extent of Mr. Trump’s actions is rare, said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation Institute for Constitutional Government.
“He is undoing unilateral executives actions of a prior president that went beyond the executive authority of the president,” Mr. von Spakovsky said. “Trump is not being given credit or praise the way he should for what he is accomplishing: restoring the rule of law, bringing the executive branch back within the parameters and limits of the Constitution and restoring to Congress authority that prior presidents have stolen.”
He said Mr. Trump “is reversing the unfortunate trend we have seen, especially during the Obama administration, of the move towards an imperial presidency that disregards the limits on its power.”
Mr. Obama’s legacy was already on shaky legal ground when Mr. Trump took office. On several of Mr. Obama’s initiatives, such as the Clean Power Plan environmental rule and the Obamacare cost-sharing payments, federal courts had ruled the policies questionable, lending more weight to Mr. Trump’s decisions to roll them back. On the immigration amnesty program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, courts were likely to rule against it.
On the economic front, Mr. Trump is working to rescind and repeal much of Mr. Obama’s agenda, and the U.S. economy continues to pick up steam, defying Mr. Obama’s warnings about unraveling his efforts at economic recovery.
“The unemployment rate is at an almost 17-year low,” Mr. Trump said at a Cabinet meeting Monday. “The stock market is soaring to record levels. We just hit a new high on Friday, and I think we’re hitting another new high today because there’s tremendous optimism having do with business in our country.”
Mr. Trump and his advisers view his moves as giving power back to the people — in most cases through Congress.
“For too long, politicians have tried to centralize the authority among the hands of a small few in our nation’s capital,” Mr. Trump told the Values Voter Summit last week in Washington. “Bureaucrats think they can run your lives, overrule your values, meddle in your faith, and tell you how to live, what to say, and how to pray.”
So eager is Mr. Trump to disassociate himself from everything Obama, he even told reporters that Mr. Obama and some other presidents didn’t make calls to families of fallen service members and instead wrote letters. He said he makes many calls to families and sometimes writes letters.
His comment about Mr. Obama was wrong, and the media and former Obama aides pointed it out before the news conference ended.
Former Obama adviser Alyssa Mastromonaco called the remark “a f—-ing lie” and Mr. Trump “a deranged animal.”
Many in the media aren’t happy, either, about Mr. Trump’s purge of Obama polices. New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote, “Trump can’t hold a candle to Obama, so he’s taking a tiki torch to Obama’s legacy.
“Trump can’t get his bad ideas through Congress, but he can use the power of the presidency to sabotage or even sink Obama’s signature deeds,” Mr. Blow opined. “In fact, if there is a defining feature of Trump as ‘president,’ it is that he is in all ways the anti-Obama — not only on policy but also on matters of propriety and polish. While Obama was erudite, Trump is ignorant. Obama was civil, Trump is churlish. Obama was tactful, Trump is tacky.”
Senate Republicans said in a statement Monday that they are “turning the page.”
“The last 10 years have been a lost decade where the economy stumbled and opportunities declined,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, wrote in an op-ed. “They suffered through stagnant paychecks, a lack of steady work, and retirement that slipped further away by the day.”
As Mr. Trump understands too well, the risk with his assault against the Obama agenda is the same as it was during Mr. Obama’s presidency: that a president of the opposite party can come along and rescind Mr. Trump’s executive actions. Mr. Trump needs more cooperation from Congress on work such as repealing Obamacare and hammering out a new immigration policy if his stamp on those issues is to become more permanent.
“We’re going to have great health care in our country,” Mr. Trump promised last week. “We’re taking a little different route than we had hoped because getting Congress — they forgot what their pledges were. So we’re going a little different route.”