A major theme of my book, perhaps the central one, is that a fixation on all sides with fleeting short-term events obscured the breadth and depth of the transformative change wrought by the Obama administration. Large and even revolutionary policy changes received little attention because they were not attached to whatever political drama had captured the attention of the political media, and those “game-changing” dramas, in turn, frequently had little or no ultimate importance.
That same fixation with immediacy has continued to color our perception of Obama since he departed. Donald Trump’s election is the most compelling and immediate story in American politics, and correctly so, but its drama has caused Obama’s presidency to be refracted through the lens of Trump. What does Trump tell us about Obama? What does Obama tell us about Trump? The easy assumption since November has been that Trump would rapidly erase Obama’s legacy. “Obama’s legacy is toast,” gloated conservative commentators. That conclusion, reached immediately in the wake of the election, has continued to form the entirety of right-wing thought about Obama. Trump won, ergo, everything Obama did is gone, close the books…
Obama’s measures to prevent a second Great Depression after the 2008 financial crisis — the stimulus, the stress tests of the banks, and auto bailout — are safe from Trump by definition. The Dodd-Frank financial reforms will be temporarily weakened through lax enforcement, just as labor, environmental, campaign, and other regulations conservatives disapprove of are typically weakened during Republican administrations. But Republicans do not have anywhere close to the 60 votes they need to wipe Dodd-Frank off the books. Obama’s education reforms are likely safe as well.
But, as I argued in the book, both the green-energy revolution that Obama helped set out, and the international diplomatic consensus in favor of limiting climate change he helped assemble have a life of their own. Rather than use Trump’s election as an excuse to renege on their own commitments, world leaders insisted after the election their agreement was irreversible. Trump will slow down the pace of the green-energy transformation, but he has neither the inclination nor the ability to destroy the changes of the last eight years. Over the last few weeks, two of the largest coal-fired power plants have announced plans to shut down…
The old conservative mental image of green energy as an unaffordable hippie daydream is hopelessly quaint, in a world where the cost of solar has plunged 85 percent, and wind 66 percent, since the stimulus, and these technologies now produce energy for less than coal. Since 2008, wind power has more than quadrupled, and solar-power capacity has increased 4,000 percent.
Battery-storage technology is a crucial factor to the greening of both the electric power sector and the transportation sector. Affordable batteries are the key component to making electric cars cost-competitive with the gasoline-powered kind. And battery storage is an enormous factor in allowing renewable energy to completely displace fossil fuels. Solar and wind power can already generate electricity more cheaply than coal, but battery storage is necessary for those sources to replace the need for fossil-fuel power when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. The price of advanced batteries has fallen by more than half in the last three years alone…
And the Republican notion that subsidizing an infant industry violates the principles of a free economy, and amounts to “crony capitalism,” has been utterly abandoned in the face of an administration where the president uses his office for self-enrichment and White House employees literally use their office to gin up customers for his family business.
And then there is Obamacare repeal, the Holy Grail of the quest to erase Obama’s legacy. My book argues that Obamacare will be difficult to repeal — by bringing 20 million previously uninsured Americans into the system, Republicans can no longer ignore them. Events since its publication have borne out that analysis. Republicans have promised to replace the law with a plan that has lower deductibles and premiums and better choices. A plan like that would require spending more money than Obamacare, and Republicans are coming face-to-face with the reality that there’s no mechanism to finance such a plan that their party could support… Financing the alternative plan is the largest obstacle facing Republicans, but hardly the only one. There are innumerable problems that must be resolved — whether to keep the Medicaid expansion, whether to defund Planned Parenthood, whether to repeal Obamacare’s taxes, and on and on. Republicans have to find near unanimity on every single one of them in order to pass a bill out of both chambers of Congress. They have resolved none of them so far.
Republicans in Congress have made no more progress in developing a partywide alternative in the three and a half months since the election than they made in the seven years before that. Their only options are to keep the current system, or some version thereof, or inflict cruelty upon millions and massive disruption to an industry that accounts for a fifth of the economy. “I would say it’s not that easy to repeal it,” concedes Representative Peter King. “The entire repeal is in mortal danger,” admits Representative Trent Franks.
Republican messaging heavily emphasized the notion that Obama governed largely through the issuing of executive orders, which supposedly left his agenda vulnerable to a quick reversal. Trump has illustrated how fallacious that notion was. The new president has issued a flurry of executive orders, but — with the exception of the immigration order, which was a fiasco — these orders have mostly been symbolic vehicles for communicating goals, rather than actual policy changes.
The notion that Obama’s presidency could and would be erased with a few strokes of the pen was a form of Republican propaganda that Republicans themselves came to believe. Conservatives took Trump’s grandiose rhetoric about repealing Obamacare and replacing it with something terrific, or bringing back coal jobs, at face value because they wanted to believe it. (Many despondent liberals yielded to the same conclusion out of characteristic fatalism.) But one of the lessons gained from a close study of Obama’s presidency, or any presidency, is that governing is hard. The reforms his domestic policies have wrought do not come easy. Even a highly competent Republican presidency would have difficulty unwinding them. And Trump has shown no signs so far of being even a minimally competent president. The expectation of a rapid erasure of Obama’s presidency looks like — to pick a cliché I read somewhere — hubris dashed against the sharp rocks of reality.