Donald Trump is not the first president to get elected by running hard against his predecessor. He may, though, be the first to make that the animating force of his administration once elected.
That this White House is targeting initiatives championed by President Obama is inarguable. To use one metric, of the 50 most notable Obama accomplishments cited by Washington Monthly in a January article, 24 have been either reversed or come under assault this year—a remarkably high number considering that several cited are immune to reversal, such as killing Osama bin Laden, rescuing the auto industry, appointing two justices to the Supreme Court, and turning the economy around after the Great Recession of 2008.
From his first day in office, Trump has attacked Obama programs with relish. Those include the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, the Paris Climate Accords, the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, family planning and contraceptive rules, pipelines, Arctic leasing, national monuments, student-debt forgiveness, net neutrality, flood-risk rules, methane limits, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, military gear for police, bathroom rules, auto emissions, gun regulations, and, of course, Obamacare.
On his just-concluded trip to Asia, Trump blamed Obama—and other presidents—for mishandling North Korea, being too weak on trade with China, and focusing too much on human rights.
The sheer length of the list, not surprisingly, dismays veterans of the Obama White House. More surprising is the reaction of historian Julian Zelizer of Princeton University. He sees ample precedent for Trump’s attacks on Obama during the campaign, but little precedent for the way the president has made dismantling Obama’s legacy such a central part of his approach in office.
In their campaigns, Franklin Roosevelt disparaged Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter targeted Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan attacked Carter, and Obama criticized George W. Bush. But once in office, FDR, Carter, Reagan, and Obama shifted their focus to implementing their own programs and policies.
In 2008, Zelizer recalled, “Candidate Obama really did define himself in large part against George W. Bush.” But “once he was elected, he actually moved on to new areas of policy and didn’t allow that to consume him.” He drew down the two wars he blamed on Bush. “But he didn’t undo most of the counterterrorism policy. That remained in place,” Zelizer said. “Then he moved on to health care and financial regulation, and he set out a new agenda.”
That, he said, is the norm for most new presidents. “Part of that is the ambition of the victor to really make his mark as president through public policy. And to do that, you have to do more than simply oppose your predecessor.”
Trump “has not done that,” Zelizer said. “He doesn’t have a very coherent vision of what he wants to do. So I think the big difference is that nine months in, he still really in many ways is defining himself as president, as he did as a candidate, against President Obama.”
The White House insists the president is not driven by animus toward his predecessor. “President Trump’s policies and accomplishments have nothing to do with President Obama and everything to do with keeping campaign promises to the American people,” deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said.
Cecilia Muñoz, who was Obama’s top domestic policy adviser, said she and many other veterans of the Obama White House find it “enormously sad and frustrating” that reversals of their policies are hurting the beneficiaries of those programs. For her, the frustration is particularly acute because she thinks this White House doesn’t grasp how those programs work, focusing solely on the fact that they were Obama’s.
“As someone who identifies proudly as a policy nerd, I am kind of shocked that people who would put all the time and energy and resources into seeking public office would know so shockingly little about how to use those offices to make policy changes,” she said.
A different former White House official, who asked not to be identified, said many Obama veterans are also frustrated because they think Trump’s crusade is fueled by personal animosity more than policy differences. “There are plenty of conservatives who could have been elected president after Barack Obama. They would have had entirely different political viewpoints,” the former official said. “But the single governing philosophy of the current president is to reverse the last president no matter if it makes sense or not. … It is just revenge.”
Gidley responded, “You better believe it’s revenge. But it’s not revenge on President Obama; it’s revenge on career politicians that have put the desires of the special interests above the needs of the American people for decades.”
Muñoz acknowledged that some of her former colleagues wish the former president would be more vocal in challenging the dismantling of his legacy. Obama has weighed in only sparingly, issuing statements after the new president attacked DACA, Obamacare, and the Paris Accords. Muñoz said Obama will not be more outspoken.
“We benefited enormously from … the fact that President Bush respected the office enough to leave us the space and leave President Obama the space to do what he was elected to do,” she said. “President Bush obviously would not have agreed with us on everything. But he believed it was important to give us the space to do our jobs, and President Obama is doing the same for the current administration. It is important to the institution and it is important to democracy.”
Eric Schultz, another White House veteran who still works for the former president, said Obama has another reason for staying out of the spotlight. “As a former president, when President Obama speaks out, he consumes a lot of the oxygen in a news cycle, which can stifle the next generation of leaders from building out their own profiles,” Schultz told National Journal.
Obama himself is known to believe that most of his legacy will survive the Trump assault. As he told The New Yorker’s David Remnick after the election, he believes “that the federal government is an aircraft carrier, it’s not a speedboat.” Obama said then that Trump can roll back “maybe 15 percent … 20 percent,” adding, “There’s still a lot of stuff that sticks.”
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