Within hours, Barack Obama’s presidency will end. The word legacy is something we hear a lot as the peaceful of transfer of power between president takes place, especially when the political party opposed to the outgoing president has significant power under the new administration. The Republicans and their incoming president are focused on quickly destroying the Obama legacy by repealing signature legislation and reversing policies enacted through executive order. They very well may have some success in doing this, especially if they pass a reconciliation bill proceeding through Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act and substitute their own version of healthcare. Trump promises to reverse much of what Obama has done through executive power and I expect he will within the first few weeks of his administration.
What is a legacy?
The applicable definition of “legacy” from Merriam-Webster is “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” It cites examples of this: “the legacy of the ancient philosophers,” or “the war left a legacy of pain and suffering.” The disconnect of the Republican efforts to destroy Obama’s legacy is that they are attempting to do something within a matter of weeks that took years to build and likely will not be fully defined for many years to come. Ronald Reagan built his legacy on supply side and trickle down economics. Bill Clinton raised taxes as President, but we still have a tax system today that looks closer to that of the Reagan years, rather than when the wealthiest Americans had tax rates of 70% to 90%. Reagan’s message from his first inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” still resonates with a significant portion of Americans today and a serious proposal of the pre-Reagan tax structure would be stepping on a political landmine. Legacies take a long time to build and if they are going to be reversed, it takes a long time to do so.
Reading the examples of “legacy” provided above, I don’t think it is necessarily a tangible thing as much as it is a set of ideas that are widely accepted and become part of our culture. Many would argue that part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s legacy is Social Security, but that would be too easy to argue that is doesn’t work and simply is too expensive to maintain. Consider this quote when he was Governor of New York:
“No greater tragedy exists in modern civilization than the aged, worn-out worker who after a life of ceaseless effort and useful productivity must look forward for his declining years to a poorhouse. A modern social consciousness demands a more humane and efficient arrangement.”
This part of FDR’s legacy is that the society has a responsibility to guarantee that the aged will be able to live a life of reasonable dignity after they retire from honest and hard work. This legacy is why opponents have failed to significantly gut Social Security including the most recent attempt by George W. Bush to privatize it in his second term. This is also why thirty years later, Lyndon Johnson created Medicare and also why Paul Ryan will fail to replace it with a voucher program.
Barack Obama’s legacy is not executive orders to combat climate change, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Dodd-Frank, or even the Affordable Care Act. His legacy is not yet totally defined, but there is evidence currently playing out of what that legacy will be.
Healthcare is a right, not a privilege
Right now Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are trying to deliver on a political promise to their constituents to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The initial strategy (considering they had no replacement after six years) was to repeal and delay the implementation of repeal while they crafted something that was much smaller scale. They rejected the ideas of universal coverage and continue to live by the Reagan principle of individual responsibility and objection to the social safety net. However, in the last few weeks, they have already had more senators than they can afford to lose publicly say that repeal without a definitive replacement plan is unacceptable. Additionally, the incoming administration has given leadership heartburn by promising that everyone will be covered and that no one will be left out in the cold. They may be trying to repeal the ACA, but while they are doing it they are reinforcing the Barack Obama’s core message. They are confronting a truth that most Americans accept that we have a responsibility to provide healthcare to everyone.
I think that it is unlikely that Republicans will be able to scale back access to healthcare because they will not be able to agree on a plan. This week the Congressional Budget Office estimated 18 million people will lose their health insurance if the ACA is repealed and Rep. Steve Scalise said that isn’t fair because the replacement has not been presented yet. While true, it is a simple fact that it costs money to cover people and if they intend to keep the promise that nobody will lose insurance (let alone cover everyone) it will blow up the deficit because they are repealing all of the taxes that currently pay for the benefits offered by the ACA. A replacement that delivers on this promise can only be delivered budget neutral if they raise taxes. Either way they lose key votes they need. If repeal fails, they may just simply live with the law or work with Democrats to fix some of the problems and claim what credit they can. In the future, more healthcare reform will likely be done to move further down the road of covering everyone including those who fall through the cracks in the ACA and undocumented workers. Whether this happens through a single payer plan or regulated market structure is hard to say, but history will look back at Barack Obama who was the first president in over a century to pass a law that put us on the path to universal coverage.
Government should protect consumers from abuse by powerful corporations
Barack Obama was handed the worst economic situation since Herbert Hoover turned over the White House to Frankly Delano Roosevelt. Fortunately for Obama, George W. Bush learned from the past and supported immediate government intervention to prevent the collapse of our financial system. Obama started his term in crisis management mode by signing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and executing a very unpopular bailout of the automobile industry.
Once the economy was in recovery, attention turned toward philosophical differences regarding the role of government over the financial industry. In the mid 1990’s Republicans were able to win several key victories undoing depression era restrictions on the financial services industry, most notably the repeal of Glass-Stegal in 1999. This entire period was driven by an idea that deregulation and freeing corporate America would bring about unprecedented economic growth. During the Obama years, conservatives have stubbornly continued to promote this idea even when economists cite greed and abusive practices by Wall Street banks as the primary cause of the financial meltdown.
With very little Republican help, Democrats passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. This law restructured the regulatory environment for banks and extended federal regulation to financial services that had never been under serious scrutiny before. It also established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), an agency with the primary mission of protecting the interests of consumers of financial services. There was really no surprise that Dodd Frank strengthened the Prudential Regulators such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, but the CFPB was a strong statement that government has a deeper responsibility to protect the regular person buying their lunch with a credit card or a family closing on their first home. Barack Obama has signed a bill that places protecting consumers on the same level as protecting shareholders and macroeconomic interests. Main Street is just as important as Wall Street. That is a new normal in our public discourse and a value that will drive future debate about tax reform, workers rights and a living wage. This is the beginning of the end of trickle down.
We all have a responsibility of stewardship for the earth
I have gone back and forth with a friend on Facebook regarding Barack Obama’s achievements on Climate Change. His argument, as I understand it, is that Obama’s focus on healthcare distracted from the more urgent threat of climate change. He argues that Obama should have used the bully pulpit and expended his significant political capital to pass a strong bill to rapidly move our economy from fossil fuels to renewable energy. I agree that Climate Change is the most serious threat we face, but my counter argument has been simply that votes to pass such a monumental piece of legislation were never there. I don’t want to use this post to unpack that argument, but it is basically that 60 votes to break a filibuster were not possible because the fossil fuel lobby would have had more sway than President Obama over Democrats in coal and oil states.
In absence of landmark climate legislation, President Obama has quietly built a very significant legacy in this area. It started with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Tucked into a massive bill showcased as needed economic stimulus were investments in renewable energy, weatherization of homes, battery research and an investment in high speed rail. This bill included approximately $65 billion focused on priorities aimed at reducing carbon emissions in our economy.
Throughout Obama’s presidency he used executive action aggressively to reduce carbon emissions. Fuel efficiency requirements for cars and light trucks is set to double by 2025 from what had been in place since 1990. Energy efficiency standards for appliances and equipment are rapidly increasing. He is the first president to set emissions standards on power plants that has resulted in accelerating the decommissioning of outdated coal plants. Before Obama’s presidency, U.S. carbon emissions were rising, but have declined by 10% during since 2008. Wind energy production has tripled and there is 50 times the solar energy production there was in 2008. No we are not done, but significant strides have been made.
Over the last couple week, I have seen definite evidence the debate on climate change has moved significantly under Obama. Republicans have historically had no problem denying the science of climate change and completely discounting the possibility that human activity is raising the temperature of the earth. Trump appointed several climate deniers to key posts that impact energy and climate change, but those deniers softened their hard lined positions in confirmation hearings this week. Scott Pruitt probably stated for the first time in his life that climate change is not a hoax and that there is “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change. Rick Perry stated unequivocally that he believes humans have contributed to climate change, reversing previous statements that the earth was warming due to natural causes. These are relatively small changes in themselves, but it is clear evidence that it is becoming politically toxic to deny the scientific truth of climate change.
Finally Trump promises to reverse the progress of Obama on climate change, but that is much easier said than done. The investments from 2009 in renewable energy significantly bent the cost curve of solar and wind. Today wind is cheaper to build than coal and solar is getting much more competitive. The executive order to reduce emissions on power plants forced the industry to move faster toward cleaner energy sources, further influencing cost advantages of alternatives. Coal executives have warned Trump to not over promise in his plan to bring back the industry, because they clearly see the decline of their industry is inevitable.
History will be kind and the future is bright
Barack Obama spoke in 2008 about his desire to be a transformation president like Ronald Reagan was, but Bill Clinton was not. This statement made a political mess for him at the time, but he recognized how important it was that the changes he made had sustainability. Obama’s cool demeanor was often criticized by members of his own party as many thought he should have more aggressive in his efforts to defend his executive and legislative achievements. I believe that the ACA and Dodd-Frank will remain intact. I also believe that the progress on climate change will continue, but maybe a bit more slowly under Trump.
I also believe we will elect a Democrat in 2020 and that president will come in with the political capital to strengthen healthcare, reverse the trend of growing income inequality through higher taxation of the wealthy and reassert American’s leadership in combating climate change. Obama’s legacy is intact and will be strengthened by the accomplishments of those who follow in his footsteps.