Home The Washington Diplomat December 2016 As Trump Takes Office, Obama’s Legacy is on Chopping Block

As Trump Takes Office, Obama’s Legacy is on Chopping Block

As Trump Takes Office, Obama’s Legacy is on Chopping Block

Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama exits the Oval Office to deliver a statement in the Rose Garden on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran’s nuclear program on April 2, 2015. The nuclear deal is one of many foreign policy achievements that incoming President Donald Trump has vowed to unravel.

Donald Trump is in. Barack Obama is out. And the hope of a woman leading the U.S. is gone, for now at least. Whatever consternation and handwringing this election has brought on (and it’s brought on a lot), the American presidency is a done deal for the next four years.

Obama is now prepping the billionaire real estate magnate/reality star to hold the highest office in the land. As the 44th president packs up his belongings to start a new life, Obama is not only leaving behind the cushy confines of the White House, he’s also leaving behind a historic — yet highly vulnerable — legacy.

The big question now is: How much of it will Trump undo?

The answer — despite reams of analysis and relentless speculation — is that no one knows for sure.

Tough Talk

Trump has said all kinds of things on the campaign trail. Much of it has been inflammatory and controversial. A lot has been erratic and contradictory. Some of it has been untrue or outright ridiculous. But most of it has also been blunt, bold and resonated with legions of white working-class Americans who feel disenfranchised by globalization and angry with the Washington elite.

Trump rode to office on a populist, nativist platform by promising to “put America first,” sparking fears among foreigners that he’ll turn the country inward and usher in a new era of American isolationism.

Experts and pundits have parsed his words for clues as to how Trump would govern, but he’s given them little to go on, though the few pronouncements he has made sent shockwaves around the world.

Trump famously said he’d build a wall with Mexico and have Mexico pay for the pleasure. He threatened to ban Muslims from entering the country and tear up landmark trade agreements like NAFTA and the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership. He pledged to toss out Obamacare along with the Iranian nuclear agreement. He called climate change a hoax perpetrated by China. He vowed to come at Beijing “from a position of strength” and slap a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports to curb its currency manipulation. He warned that Japan and South Korea may no longer fall under America’s protection umbrella, prompting concerns that they might develop their own nukes to counter a belligerent North Korea. He suggested bringing back torture to interrogate terrorists and locking them up in Guantanamo Bay. He derided the U.S.-backed battle to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State as a “total” failure even when the military offensive had barely begun. He denounced NATO as obsolete and warned that Washington wouldn’t come to European allies’ rescue unless they forked over their fair share of dues. He’s fawned over Russian President Vladimir Putin and floated the idea of working with him to resolve the civil war in Syria. He pledged to beef up U.S. military resources but “abandon the failed policy of nation-building and regime change that Hillary Clinton pushed in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria.”

Anyone’s Guess

Other than dramatic sound-bites geared more toward Twitter than the Situation Room, however, Trump hasn’t fleshed out how he would implement any of these proposals. Unlike Clinton, a policy wonk who cranked out detailed white papers and employed a Rolodex of established Beltway insiders, Trump has never governed before and has assembled a bare-bones, shifting team around him that includes many unconventional faces, including his daughter and son-in-law.

So despite his solid victory, Trump remains a mystery, leaving everyone from the Pentagon brass to European diplomats anxious over his next moves.

“After Brexit and this election, everything is now possible,” French Ambassador Gérard Araud wrote on Twitter. “A world is collapsing before our eyes.”

Thomas Wright, director of the Project on International Order and Strategy for the Brookings Institution, echoed Araud’s dire predictions. He said he’s often asked whether Trump will moderate his views once he assumes office. “My response has always been that we should not expect a 70-year-old man who has held these beliefs for three decades to abandon them at the moment he feels completely vindicated and acquires awesome levels of power,” Wright wrote in a Brookings brief shortly after the election.

Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr
President-elect Donald Trump, speaking at a campaign rally in Phoenix earlier this year, has vowed to “make America great again,” although he’s been vague and contradictory on how he plans to make that happen.

“The United States could withdraw from its role as the leader of a liberal international order. The order would then collapse and other countries would scramble to respond,” he warned. “Some would take advantage. Others would try to protect themselves. Others still would submit to their larger neighbors. We have no idea where it would end but these are the conditions, maybe the only conditions, where a major war is possible.”

Others say apocalyptic predictions of the world’s demise are a tad premature.

Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in Foreign Policy, said it’s possible “that the worst won’t happen and that Trump will exceed the low-low expectations that greet his ascension. In truth, although I have been warning — along with many others — of the catastrophic consequences of a Trump presidency, I have no idea what he will actually do. Nobody does, probably including Trump himself.”

Indeed, Trump has yet to even take office. Obama and Clinton have urged their supporters to give him a chance. After largely shunning him during the campaign, heads of state have rushed to congratulate Trump and pledged to work with the new president. Already, the president-elect met with leaders such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and invited British Prime Minister Theresa May for a visit (he also caused a diplomatic uproar with China by breaking protocol and taking a phone call from the president of Taiwan). Trump also struck a conciliatory tone during his acceptance speech and tamped down talk of jailing his Democratic opponent over her use of a private email server as secretary of state.

Moreover, despite the powers that the executive branch wields, American institutions are slow-moving bureaucracies with checks and balances that are largely resistant to seismic change, which can be a detriment but also an attribute (there is no actual nuclear “button” that would trigger Armageddon by the way). And political rhetoric on the campaign trail is often just that — rhetoric — and doesn’t say much about what candidates will do once they start the messy task of governing.

Trump may have been vague on what he would do to “make America great again,” but one thing is certain, he’ll have plenty to undo. While Obama leaves office with some of the highest approval ratings of his tenure, Hillary Clinton’s trouncing at the ballot box was in part a repudiation of Obama’s legacy. Americans were surprisingly loud about their views on immigration, overseas entanglements and domestic regulations. Voters who supported Trump now expect him to target Obama’s record, which, barring a major crisis, is likely what the Republican-led Congress will want to focus on during his first 100 days in office. Trump has already indicated that immigration, health care and jobs will be among his top priorities.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama walks through the Cross Hall of the White House before delivering a statement on the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling on his health care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act. Obamacare is one of the signature initiatives now under threat by a Donald Trump presidency.

So here are a few of Obama’s signature achievements that could be on the chopping block:

Obamacare on Life Support

The first casualty of a Trump presidency may be Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), which mandated insurance coverage for all Americans and sought to reduce health care costs, is pretty much dead, if not on life support. Despised when Democrats rammed it through Congress in 2010, Republicans have spent years trying to repeal the legislation. Now that the GOP controls both the House and Senate, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Congress would roll back key parts of the law, if not trash it altogether.

Obamacare expanded health insurance to about 20 million Americans and set up marketplace exchanges where people could buy affordable coverage. But Republicans balked at creating individual marketplaces and expanding Medicaid in states they controlled, often forcing poorer families to turn to federal exchanges. As insurance companies had to absorb more sick people, their profit margins were reduced and premiums rose dramatically.

Federal subsidies have helped many consumers offset these costs, but as McConnell argued in a CNN op-ed, subsidies are “just a nicer way to say ‘middle-class taxpayers will pay for it.’”

Republicans such as Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), an orthopedic surgeon and staunch opponent of Obamacare who Trump tapped to be the secretary of health and human services, hope to craft an alternative to ACA. Despite Price’s experience understanding the nuances of the complex law (he’s introduced several bills to repeal Obamacare over the years), Republicans will have to tread carefully to avoid suddenly stripping 20 million people of health insurance coverage.

Yet as with all things Trump, his position on the issue has been malleable. In a Nov. 11 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump hedged on his vow to repeal Obamacare altogether, saying he’d like to preserve popular provisions of the law — namely that insurance companies can’t deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions. But the industry has said it can’t afford to keep those goodies unless all Americans are required to buy insurance, a central tenet of Obamacare.

Credit: Official White House
Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama, with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, participates in a meeting on the Affordable Care Act in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on July 23, 2013.

Rand Corp. estimated that Trump’s plans to rework Obamacare would “increase the number of uninsured individuals by 16 million to 25 million,” primarily lower-income individuals, and estimated that if proposed reforms do not replace the law’s financing mechanisms, “they would increase the federal deficit by $0.5 billion to $41 billion.”

Blowing Up Iran Nuclear Deal

Many Republicans are eager to dismantle Obama’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran, which has been hugely unpopular with Congress since its inception.

In November, the Senate unanimously approved a 10-year reauthorization of the Iran Sanctions Act after the House overwhelmingly voted to renew the act, which expires Dec. 31. It imposes sanctions on energy, banking, defense and other sectors over Iran’s nuclear and missile program and support of terrorism, although it allows a president to waive sanctions on a case-by-case basis. Obama has said the bill isn’t necessary because the president can “snap back” sanctions if Iran violates the nuclear deal. Lawmakers counter that the bill offers critical economic leverage to ensure Iranian compliance. (Some of the sanctions are also unrelated to the nuclear accord.)

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 countries (U.S., U.K., China, France, Russia plus Germany) was finalized in July 2015. It offers Tehran energy and financial sanctions relief in exchange for constraining its ability to produce a nuclear weapon.

Iran has largely stuck to the framework, allowing in international inspectors, relinquishing 98 percent of its nuclear material and mothballing thousands of centrifuges. In return, Iran has resumed selling its oil on the global market, had tens of billions of dollars in assets unfrozen and began inking business deals with international companies (even Boeing recently signed a lucrative $25 billion deal to sell planes to Tehran).

Photo: U.S. State Department
A meeting table in the Blue Salon of the Palais Coburg Hotel in Vienna, Austria, awaits U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif before their Jan. 16, 2016, meeting on the Iran nuclear deal.

But the nuclear accord did not herald a new era in U.S.-Iran relations. Tehran says the U.S. has been slow to lift sanctions that continue to cripple and isolate its economy. Washington cites Iran’s increased ballistic missile testing and its support of militias in Syria and Iraq as proof that the regime can’t be trusted (though those issues weren’t part of the nuclear agreement).

To clinch the deal, Obama had to win over skeptics in his own party. Last year, he mustered enough Democratic support to block a Republican-led resolution that would’ve scuttled the deal, achieving a political victory but exacerbating partisan animosity.

Now that Republicans control the government, the nuclear deal is on shaky ground. Trump has called it “the worst deal I think I’ve ever seen negotiated” and suggested ripping it up. Trump’s pick for national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and defense secretary, James Mattis, are also hawkish critics of Iran, calling the Islamic republic as one of America’s most dangerous enemies (although Mattis has cautioned that a unilateral move to scrap the Iran deal would harm U.S. interests).

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned that the nuclear agreement was forged with a coalition of countries, “not as an agreement with one government.” Indeed, Trump will have a hard time convincing other nations to walk away from a historic agreement that they credit with extending the length of time it will take Tehran to develop a nuke and averting another conflict in the Middle East. 

To avoid alienating allies, Trump may focus on rigorously enforcing the letter of the agreement, target Iran for non-nuclear-related disputes such as its ballistic missile program and discourage U.S. companies from doing business with Tehran.

Photo: U.S. State Department
Following a P5+1 meeting in Vienna that ran into the early morning hours of July 7, 2015, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Hossein Fereydoun, the brother of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini huddled as Secretary of State John Kerry spoke across the room with his Russian, French, German and British counterparts.

Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a strident critic of the deal, told USA Today’s Oren Dorell that Trump probably won’t tear up the agreement, but signal that he’s going to aggressively enforce it and “not tolerate any Iranian cheating or challenging of the deal.”

Still, experts fear that any reneging on Washington’s part may lead Iran to restart its nuclear program and empower hard-liners ahead of the country’s 2017 elections. That in turn could trigger an arms race in the region and put Trump at odds with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a staunch Iran ally. At the same time, it would undoubtedly please the Saudis, who see Washington’s overtures to their Shiite rival as a threat to their own interests.

Russian Reset Take Two

Perhaps no other foreign head of state was more buoyed by Trump’s electoral success than Russian President Putin.

Early in his administration, Obama tried to forge a new relationship with Russia. Then-Secretary of State Clinton famously gave Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a red button with a botched translation of the word “reset” to symbolize a new era in relations.

But Putin’s authoritarian tendencies, support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and provocations in Ukraine quickly put the kibosh on that rapprochement. Clinton was widely expected to take a tougher line with Putin if elected, and many U.S. officials accused the Kremlin of meddling in the U.S. election by leaking emails belonging to Clinton and the Democratic Party.

Credit: Official White House
Photo by Pete Souza
President Obama talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin after a lunch to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France, in 2014. Donald Trump has indicated a willingness to work with Russia that has unnerved America’s Eastern European allies.

Trump has denied any connection to the hacked emails, although he hasn’t been shy about his pro-Russia bent. His repeated praise of Putin — coupled with the businessman’s disdain for NATO members shirking their financial responsibilities — has been music to the ears of the Russian leader.

It’s also spread panic among traditional European allies that the U.S. will abandon them at a time of stepped-up Russian aggression. For example, Trump hasn’t indicated whether he supports U.S. plans to dispatch a 4,000-strong NATO contingent to the Baltics and Eastern Europe. He’s said he would “look at” whether the U.S. might recognize Putin’s annexation of Crimea and whether Washington will continue to support sanctions against Moscow for stoking tensions in Ukraine.

That has left countries from Germany to Estonia fearing that the new president will unravel the NATO architecture that has underpinned European security since the end of World War II.

But Moscow sees that military alliance in a vastly different light.

“From the Kremlin’s point of view, this security order is intolerable,” Edward Lucas, a senior editor at the Economist, wrote last month for CNN. “The rules of the game were written when Russia was weak, following the Soviet collapse. It treats the largest country in the world by landmass — and the biggest in Europe by population — as if it were just another player.”

Putin has long complained that NATO is encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence by courting nations in its backyard, such as Georgia and Ukraine. For his part, Trump has lamented that NATO members need to shoulder more of the burden for their own defense.

On the upside, Trump has suggested he could work with Putin to break the bloody stalemate in Syria’s six-year civil war. Both men want to focus their energies on defeating the Islamic State (although Trump hasn’t clarified what he would do differently than Obama on that front). At the same time, aligning with Moscow in Syria’s convoluted proxy war — and, by extension, siding with Bashar al-Assad, Iran and Hezbollah — would come at the cost of the Syrian rebel groups that Obama tentatively backed.

Credit: DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Brett Miller, U.S. Army National Guard
A British soldier surveys the battlefield during a training exercise in Latvia on June 12, 2014.

While Trump has at times been effusive in his admiration for Putin, the Russian leader was lukewarm in his congratulatory message to the Manhattan billionaire. A wily political operative, Putin has seen two previous presidents — Obama and George W. Bush — try to improve ties, only for them to take a nosedive. Bush famously said he had looked into Putin’s eyes and gotten “a sense of his soul.” Whether Trump has more luck gleaning any insights into the murky former KGB officer remains to be seen.

Wall of Resentment

While Moscow greeted Trump’s victory with glee, Mexico wasn’t as thrilled.

The real estate mogul’s tough talk on immigration propelled him to the national limelight, striking a raw nerve with white blue-collar voters who are angry by what they perceive as an influx of foreigners stealing jobs, committing crimes and endangering American values.

Much of this vitriol was directed at Mexicans, whom Trump labeled as rapists and drug-runners. While Republicans in Congress haven’t commented on the feasibility of building Trump’s “big, beautiful” wall with Mexico, they have hinted that they would strengthen border control (through additional fencing and federal agents).

Meanwhile, Mexico is closely watching to see how aggressively Trump will act to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States. After Republicans in Congress blocked passage of comprehensive immigration reform, Obama turned to executive orders to shield millions of immigrants from deportation, namely Dreamers (those brought to the U.S. as children) and parents of U.S. citizens.

Photo: U.S. Army / Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde
A small fence separates densely populated Tijuana, Mexico, right, from the United States in the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector. President-elect Donald Trump has proposed building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, although Congress is more likely to appropriate additional fending and border patrol agents.

Many of these initiatives remain in legal limbo, and it’s expected that Trump will ramp up deportations and enforcement operations. He told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that he’d immediately deport 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants (though experts warn that such mass deportations could cost hundreds of billions of dollars and require thousands of additional agents). Trump’s pledge to focus on criminals also exactly mirrors Obama’s strategy of targeting violent offenders.

On that note, Trump occasionally praised Obama’s record on immigration, which is decidedly mixed. On the one hand, Obama strongly supported a legal pathway to citizenship for certain immigrants. On the other, he deported more illegal immigrants than any U.S. president in history.

And while no other issue seemed to rile up Trump supporters more than Mexican immigrants, the numbers don’t necessarily bear out their fears. Migration from Mexico has been flat or on the wane since the 2008 recession, with more Mexicans leaving the U.S. over the last five years than entering it.

New Direction for Asia Pivot

By accepting a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Trump broke decades of protocol intended to keep the peace between China and Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province. The move infuriated China and signaled that Trump may carry over some of his brash campaign rhetoric (notably to slap tariffs on Chinese imports) into the White House.

On the one hand, Trump’s protectionist stance worries China, America’s number-two trading partner. On the other, his strident opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact that notably excludes China, is a boon to the communist politburo.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Obama tours the Great Wall during his 2009 visit to China.

The TPP has been the cornerstone of Obama’s so-called pivot of military and economic resources to Asia, the fastest-growing region in the world. The sweeping trade deal took years of painstaking negotiations among 12 Pacific-Rim nations that together represent 40 percent of the global economy and a third of world trade. But Congress was already reluctant to pass the little-understood accord, and Trump’s election is likely the nail in the TPP coffin (it also imperils a separate trade agreement with the European Union).

“Once in office, Trump has the executive power to pull out of trade agreements, restart the Keystone pipeline, and bring trade cases against China,” wrote Robert Kahn of the Council on Foreign Relations in a CFR post, though he cautioned that Trump would still need congressional cooperation to do so.

In recent years, China has flexed its muscles in the region, laying claim to disputed territory in the South and East China Seas. Its assertive behavior alienated smaller Asian nations, giving Obama an opening to strengthen America’s presence in the Pacific.

Trump may reverse Obama’s Asia pivot — which Beijing criticized as a thinly veiled attempt to contain its ambitions — or at least steer it in a new direction. The Philippines had been a linchpin in Obama’s strategy, but with Manila’s brash new president, Rodrigo Duterte, cozying up to Beijing despite the two countries’ territorial disputes, the pendulum may swing back in China’s favor.

“Countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, and the Philippines, uncertain about who to back in the contest for power in the Pacific, will swing massively China’s way, preferring a country that keeps its promises to one that can turn on the pull of an electoral lever,” wrote James Palmer in a Nov. 9 Foreign Policy article. “The strongest U.S. allies, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, no longer confident in the U.S. nuclear umbrella, will begin seriously considering other alternatives — like acquiring their own nuclear deterrent, prompting new tensions with China,” he added.

Credit: DoD photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Jennifer A. Villalovos, U.S. Navy
U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships transit the East China Sea in 2012. Stepped-up military patrols in and around disputed territory in the South and East China Seas were part of President Obama’s Asia pivot.

Palmer speculated that this realignment will embolden China; others say Beijing doesn’t want a U.S. retrenchment that could fuel regional instability by sparking a nuclear arms race.

Isaac Stone, a senior fellow with the Asia Society, said Trump’s win is a double-edged sword for China. “Trump’s denigration of the U.S. alliance structure in Northeast Asia would greatly improve Beijing’s military position with regards to Japan, one of its biggest rivals,” he said. “And Trump’s reluctance to criticize China’s human rights abuses delights Beijing, as well as his inexperience in governance.

“And yet, the political elite in Beijing grudgingly preferred a Clinton presidency — for the simple fact that she would have brought stability, and for the ruling Chinese Communist Party, stability is paramount.” 

Either way, both China and Russia may engage in a period of gloating over the dangers of democracy. They’ll cite the chaotic U.S. election, which produced an untested president and a deeply divided country, as proof that their authoritarian models offer more stability than Western-style democracy. 

Cuba Opening Slammed Shut?

Fidel Castro’s death on Nov. 25 at the age of 90 upended the dynamics of Obama’s historic détente with Cuba. By using his executive powers, Obama significantly eased travel and commercial restrictions on the communist island (though only Congress can lift the decades-old U.S. trade embargo). Because these changes were done via executive action, however, the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Washington and Havana can be easily undone by Obama’s successor.

Trump has waffled on whether he would jettison Obama’s rapprochement with America’s former Cold War adversary. In September 2015, he said the normalization of relations was “fine” and even should have been stronger.

But at a Miami rally in September, Trump said he would reverse Obama’s policies unless Havana meets U.S. demands for greater religious freedom and the release of political prisoners. He echoed that sentiment after Castro’s death, calling the fiery revolutionary “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.”

Photo: U.S. State Department
President Obama sits with Cuban President Raúl Castro as members of a U.S. delegation attend an exhibition game between the Cuban National Baseball Team and the Tampa Bay Rays on March 22, 2016, during Obama’s historic visit to the communist island.

Experts have speculated that Trump may seize on Castro’s death to press the regime to make significant political changes. Meanwhile, Fidel’s brother Raúl, who has ruled the island for the last decade, may hunker down now that his charismatic brother, the torchbearer of the Cuban Revolution, has passed from the scene.

Freezing Climate Initiatives

The president’s ambitious plans to fight climate change — like many of the policies enacted using executive authority — are at risk under a Trump presidency.

Just four days before the election, the landmark Paris Agreement to curb climate change formally went into effect. Nearly 100 countries, accounting for just over two-thirds of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, have officially joined the accord, which seeks to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

A total of 195 countries made various commitments to scale back the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are wreaking havoc on the planet’s weather patterns. Yet even if every nation upholds its Paris promises — which are not legally binding — it still won’t be enough to keep the planet from warming to dangerous levels.

Nevertheless, the deal, hammered out last December, creates a system to monitor nations’ progress toward their goals; seeks to help them transition to cleaner, renewable energy sources like wind and solar; and marks the first time that developing countries such as China agreed to rein in their emissions.

Obama, who pledged to cut U.S. emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels, was instrumental in getting Chinese President Xi Jinping on board with the agreement.

Key to Obama’s Paris commitments is the Clean Power Plan, a set of Environmental Protection Agency regulations that aim to slash greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 2030. The controversial plan is still mired in court battles and likely to wind up in the Supreme Court.

Now, Obama’s two signature climate initiatives are in serious jeopardy. Trump has vowed to scrap Obama’s environmental regulations; pull out of the Paris accord; stop all government funding of clean energy projects; increase coal mining; and open up federal lands to oil and gas exploration.

Nathan Hultman, a senior fellow with Brookings, argues that there are limits to what Trump can do (for example, the U.S. cannot legally withdraw from the Paris Agreement for at least four years).

“Most policies enacted by the Obama administration over the past eight years have been regulatory actions and not simple executive orders. This is an important distinction — regulatory actions take years to develop, revise, and finalize,” he wrote in a Nov. 9 Brookings brief, noting that any changes to those policies would invite additional lawsuits. “In addition, barring a change in managerial style, it seems unlikely that Trump’s administration would quickly become a well-oiled machine focused on climate priorities.” 

Nevertheless, Trump can severely weaken Obama’s climate agenda. By not honoring the pledges the U.S. made in Paris, for instance, he could tamp down enthusiasm among other nations to comply with the agreement. He could also refuse to defend the Clean Power Plan in court. The environmental team he is assembling are strident opponents of Obama’s climate initiatives and avid proponents of oil and gas drilling. Trump’s nominee to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has spent years as attorney general of Oklahoma fighting Obama’s climate regulations, including the Clean Power Plan. Trump also tapped Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a leading climate skeptic, to gut EPA regulations that Ebell has long argued are overzealous and strangle economic growth.

Dejected environmentalists are pinning their hopes on the fact that climate change won’t go away. “Donald Trump now has the unflattering distinction of being the only head of state in the entire world to reject the scientific consensus that mankind is driving climate change,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “Regardless … there are some things Trump can’t change. He can’t change the fact that the world is heating up and we are reaching a tipping point.…The markets and the American people are moving this nation beyond dirty fuels to clean energy, and Donald Trump can’t reverse that tide.”

The Intangible Credibility Gap

Obama rode to office on a wave of worldwide adulation after America’s reputation abroad was severely damaged by eight years of a George W. Bush presidency that saw the disastrous Iraq War and a global recession. In Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere, Obama was revered as America’s first black president and a symbol of the country’s enlightened democracy.

Photo: By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) / Google Picasa – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
The exterior windows of Trump Hotel in Las Vegas are gilded with 24-karat gold. Experts have raised alarm about President-elect Donald Trump’s vast real estate holdings around the world and the potential conflicts of interest they create once he assumes office.

Obama’s lofty promises to turn a new tide with the Arab world, however, did not pan out, as the turmoil of the Arab Spring upended regional dynamics and devastated nations such as Syria and Yemen. Obama’s charisma and worldly upbringing weren’t enough to overcome the historical grievances and geopolitical jockeying between Sunnis and Shiites. He also couldn’t prevent a bellicose Russia, rising China or reckless North Korea from antagonizing their neighbors.

But the 44th president did mend fences with U.S. allies estranged by Bush’s unilateral policies. His close ties with EU nations helped cobble together a coalition that slapped sanctions on Moscow, paved the way for a historic nuclear agreement with Iran and steady a faltering global economy.

The question now is: How much international goodwill does Trump need to realize his foreign policy vision? The Republican president-elect dismissed or outright insulted a multitude of leaders, many of whom only begrudgingly accepted his victory. Will their bitterness linger, or will bygones be bygones once Trump enters the White House?

Vanda Felbab-Brown of Brookings says it may be difficult to patch up the differences.

“During his campaign, he denigrated allies and questioned the usefulness of NATO … rejoiced in humiliating neighbors like Mexico, repeatedly lashed out against China, suggested policies for the Middle East that ranged from uninformed (such as his promise to abort the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal), erratic, un-implementable (taking oil away from the Islamic State) to utterly unspecified (such as how to fight the Islamic State or what to do with Syria or Egypt),” she wrote.

“This is heavy baggage that Trump brings to the Oval Office. The credibility of the United States as a country committed to pluralism, multiculturalism, inclusiveness, opportunities for all and human rights — in other words, U.S. soft power — has already suffered a serious blow. Recovering that reputation for enlightened leadership will be hard for President Trump, given the xenophobia of his rhetoric on the way to the White House,” she concluded.

Others say Trump’s everyman appeal will resonate in far-flung corners of the globe struggling with inequality and globalization.

“While much of what he says doesn’t make sense and he can easily contradict himself several times in one sentence, Trump talks in way that everyone with a reasonable command of English can understand. There is no need to get out a dictionary or try to follow complicated sentence structures. And because people comprehend what he is saying, they feel connected and taken seriously,” wrote German journalist Ines Pohl for Deutsche Welle.

Some even interpret his inconsistency as a sign of honesty, she argued. “At first glance this doesn’t seem to make sense. But precisely because Trump contradicts himself constantly and offers diverging views on one and the same topic, many people feel that he is simply being honest. In a campaign in which many statements are geared toward very specific voter groups, many people deem authenticity more important than sophisticated electoral concepts that often seem generic and starchy.”

Rolling Back Regulations, Taxes

In the wake of steadfast GOP opposition to most of his initiatives, Obama turned to his executive authority to enact a raft of economic regulations in his second term. As Binyamin Appelbaum and Michael D. Shear of the New York Times noted, the Obama administration in its first seven years finalized 560 major regulations — nearly 50 percent more than the George W. Bush administration did during the same period.

“An army of lawyers working under Mr. Obama’s authority has sought to restructure the nation’s health care and financial industries, limit pollution, bolster workplace protections and extend equal rights to minorities,” they wrote Aug. 13, noting that little-known rules now allow women to buy emergency contraceptive pills without prescriptions, for example, and military veterans to design their own headstones. “Under Mr. Obama, the government has literally placed a higher value on human life.”

At the same time, they wrote, “It has imposed billions of dollars in new costs on businesses and consumers” — while circumventing the legislative process.

The other flip side of relying on executive orders is that they can be overturned with the stroke of a pen.

“Anything enacted by executive order can be rescinded by executive order,” Zachary Goldman, a former U.S. Treasury official now at New York University, told Reuters.

Trump has vowed to erase Obama-era regulations such as Dodd-Frank financial rules that ban banks from engaging in their own in-house trading for profits. He also has the full backing of a Republican-controlled Congress. Not only are lawmakers itching to overturn hundreds of regulations that they say stifle economic growth and innovation, they also hope to fulfill their long-sought dream of overhauling the tax code.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Obama signs an executive order, “Improving the Security of Consumer Financial Transactions,” at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Oct. 17, 2014.

Obama touts an economic record that includes creating 15 million new private-sector jobs since 2010, saving the auto industry and cutting the unemployment rate to a historic low of 4.9 percent. But the national debt also doubled under his watch, corporate profits soared and a stubborn inequality gap helped propel Trump to victory. With many Americans clamoring for change, they may be receptive to the type of sweeping tax cuts George W. Bush enacted during his presidency.

Trump has proposed condensing the current seven tax brackets into three and lowering the rate for the nation’s highest earners to 33 percent. He also wants to eliminate the estate tax for wealthy families and cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent. While Trump is correct that America has the highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world, he omits the fact that thanks to loopholes, the average rate for many large corporations is more like 13 percent.

According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, by 2025, about 51 percent of the benefits of Trump’s tax plan would go to the wealthiest percentile of taxpayers, who would save $317,000 on average each year, boosting their incomes by more than 14 percent. Meanwhile, a typical family would save nearly $1,100 a year in taxes — an increase of 1.5 percent in income.

Paying for these tax cuts is another matter entirely. It’s simple math: Either the national debt would have to go up or federal spending would have to slashed. As Max Ehrenfreund of the Washington Post pointed out, “If the government borrowed all of the money to pay for Trump’s tax plan, the deficits and the cost of interest would increase the national debt by $7.2 trillion.”

So despite the GOP majority in Congress, Trump (who famously refused to disclose his own tax returns as candidate and may have dodged taxes for nearly two decades) is likely to face blowback once the debate over tax reform begins in earnest.

It’s also important to remember that even though Trump handily won the presidency with 290 Electoral College votes, Clinton still garnered half the popular vote. In fact, as of press time, 2.2 million more Americans voted for her than for Trump (sparking recounts and a separate debate on the merits of the Electoral College). So while Trump holds an electoral mandate, it is far from an ironclad one. He must now contend with a deeply polarized nation that is split in two, with one side opposing Obama’s legacy and the other opposing efforts to relegate it to the dustbin of history.

About the Author

Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.