President-elect Donald Trump has already made President Obama irrelevant. He not only commands the media spotlight, as presidents-elect are wont to do, but in effect he governs from Trump Tower as he awaits the necessary formality of Inauguration Day. Whether it be convincing Carrier to keep its plant in Indiana or signalling a new day in Sino-American relations by talking to Taiwan’s president, the Trump era has already begun. And President Obama is not so much yesterday’s man as he is the president eagerly—and easily—forgotten.
Obama was elected in 2008 for his biography more than for his accomplishments, of which there were precious few: an elite education, some “community organizing” (whatever that is), a stint in the state legislature, and a cup of coffee in the U.S. Senate. He sold the American people on a package of “hope and change” and the people bought it. Twice.
The election this year of Donald Trump is more than just buyer’s remorse—it’s a repudiation of Obama’s promise to “fundamentally transform the United States of America.” In office, his agenda was stymied by a constitutional order designed to impede radical change. The framers of the Constitution understood that time allows passions to recede so that cooler—and, one hopes, wiser—heads prevail.
Yet Obama, the only “constitutional law professor” ever elected president, as his supporters endlessly reminded us, (though Andrew Jackson served as a judge of the Tennessee Supreme Court before becoming president and William Howard Taft was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after his presidency) was repeatedly frustrated and apparently bewildered by the Constitution’s checks and balances.
When the system is running right, change comes slowly and even then only by building a consensus among the American people. Education and persuasion become fundamental to the art of politics. But this didn’t suit Obama or the Democrats—all supporters of the progressive belief in rule by experts through the administrative state and disdainful of the republican attachment to the idea that government must be accountable to the people. Too often, progressives see the people as ignorant, backwards, uneducated, and an impediment to their Utopian dreams. When your ideology tells you that history is advancing inexorably toward a better future you become understandably impatient with those who don’t want to hurry forward.
Obama’s signature—and only meaningful—legislative accomplishment is the government takeover of healthcare accomplished under the Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as Obamacare. Congress passed the bill without a single Republican vote through a constitutionally suspect use of a budget reconciliation procedure. And it very likely will be gone in the opening days of the Trump Administration, possibly on Inauguration Day itself.
Government-controlled healthcare has been a Leftist unicorn since the time of the New Deal. With Obama in the White House and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid in control of Congress, they seized the opportunity. But Americans never supported the law and Democrats didn’t take the time to persuade them. “Take your medicine, it’s good for you,” was the prescription coming from the Democrat leadership.
Not only is Obamacare unpopular with the American people, it was based upon a series of shady deals, phony promises, and outright lies: “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it…”; “If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor”; “Obamacare will reduce the deficit”; “there will be no rationing”; the Cornhusker Kickback; Obamacare won’t violate the Hyde Amendment and pay for abortion or abortifacient drugs.
Obama and the Democratic Party leadership said and did everything necessary to muscle the bill through Congress—everything other than convincing Americans that the law was necessary or wise. And early next year, with an act of Congress likely to have support from at least some Democrats, Obamacare will be repealed and will vanish like a mere breath or a passing shadow.
And so will most everything else done on Obama’s watch. Because Barack Obama saw himself and his presidency as post-Constitutional, he did not govern in co-equal partnership with Congress but chose instead to reign with pen and phone. For Obama, Congress—even when controlled by Democrats—was a nuisance and an impediment. He was always impatient with constitutional forms so he ignored them, relying instead upon executive orders, unconstitutional power grabs by the administrative state, and a pliable judiciary.
Obama’s tenure, especially after the 2010 Tea Party election, has been characterized by high profile and highly questionable executive actions that run counter to the expressed will of the people through their representatives in Congress. Among these were the infamous Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) order that undermined existing immigration law and the unconstitutional Iran deal which Obama refused to submit to the Senate because it only had 34 votes not the two-thirds required for a treaty. Not even all Senate Democrats supported the Iran deal so, without congressional approval Obama agreed to send $150 billion of taxpayer money to Iran—the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism—and to accept their word that they won’t pursue a nuclear weapons program. Not only is this a blatantly unconstitutional power grab that undermines national security, it amounts to paying Iran to lie to us.
But because Obama acted so often without Congress, at the stroke of the new president’s pen it can all be undone. This is the Achilles heel of the Left’s post-constitutional will to power politics: it only works when you’re winning. When an election goes against you everything you have accomplished by force of will can be overturned by your successor. If you don’t pass a law through Congress, your successor doesn’t need to go to Congress to reverse it. More important, the reason Obama didn’t go to Congress to enact his agenda is because the American people, while personally attached to him, did not support it. As a result there will be not so much an outcry as relief when he is reversed—which brings us to this year’s election.
The stakes in this year’s election could not have been higher. Had Hillary Clinton won, she would have made permanent Obama’s radical changes. She would have done this not through Congress, but through the judiciary which she would have packed with even more doctrinaire “living constitution” Leftists who would have given their imprimatur to all of Obama’s executive overreach and the even more imperial power grabs that were certain to have accompanied Clinton. It would have rendered Congress as unnecessary as the Russian Duma. The irony is lost on the American Left, for whom Vladimir Putin has become this year’s bogeyman, that they have such similar ideas about presidential power.
But Clinton did not win the election. Donald Trump won. And Republicans maintained control of both houses of Congress and expanded their advantage in the states, now controlling 33 governorships and 67 of 98 state legislative chambers—a level of dominance not seen in nearly a century for the GOP. The challenge for Republicans will be to govern effectively and meet the needs of the people who have placed so much trust in the party. But Republicans have taken the time to educate and persuade the people upon whom they have built a surprisingly effective electoral coalition. What is more, grassroots organizations have been active at the state level on issues like abortion, criminal justice reform, and immigration.
Too often successful state laws were challenged by a hostile Obama Administration and overturned by liberal judges. With a Republican president and, one hopes, more judges devoted to the Constitution, those efforts will enjoy broader support. Trump will become president on January 20 and while the significance of that cannot be underestimated, it is more important to realize that he is the tip of the iceberg. The much larger mass of the Republican Party is below the surface—in Congress, in governors’ mansions and state legislatures, and in grassroots organizations throughout the country that have worked within the system to build consensus and pass laws. That’s the way the system is supposed to work. Republicans have done it the hard way, but it’s also the only way to build anything that lasts.
The Left, in its hurry to realize the next new thing has no patience for that. Impatient as their historicist ideology makes them, they have built their house on sand. Most of what Obama accomplished was ephemeral and will be gone before winter turns to spring. The only things that will remain are an additional $10 trillion in debt, his anti-constitutionalist judges, and a dog’s breakfast of foreign policy disasters that someone else will have to clean up.
After undoing Obama’s executive actions, Trump will enact his agenda through Congress. That will make it be more durable—and more likely to transform America. Obama might be remembered, but his political legacy will fade like memories of a summer fling. And he will become the president that never was.