By Jonty Head
At the Democratic Conference back in August, Barack Obama said that President Trump had treated the presidency like a “reality show”, that he was only interested in helping “himself and his friends”, and criticised four years of “lies and conspiracy theories”. Tradition dictates that former US Presidents maintain a respectful silence about their successors. But, while Trump and Biden were battling for the presidency, Obama’s legacy was on the line, and he knew it.
In the build up to the 2016 vote, Trump made no secret of his desire to reverse key Obama-era policies. Recently, he said that his predecessor was not a great president because ‘much of what he’s done we’ve undone.’ But how effectively has Trump managed to dismantle Obama’s legacy, and will Biden be able to restore it?
Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act (ACA), was perhaps Obama’s proudest achievement in office. It aimed to ensure that all Americans would have access to affordable health insurance. Key features included offering tax credits to help cover the cost of government-sponsored health insurance plans and regulating the private market to protect those with pre-existing medical conditions from having their applications for health insurance turned down.
Despite his frequent criticism of the policy, Trump never managed to repeal the ACA, nor to gain sufficient support for an alternative. While Biden has resisted pressure from the left of the Democratic party for an NHS-style “Medicare for All”, in the days since winning the election he has pledged to expand the ACA. This will prove tricky while the Republicans hold a majority in the Senate, but shows that he plans to build on Obama’s healthcare legacy rather than rescind it.
Obama’s only real legacy in terms of immigration was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Introduced in 2012, this provided those who had been brought into the US illegally as children with a temporary legal status. Attempts by Trump to end the programme have been largely frustrated. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that his administration could not repeal DACA immediately, citing a failure to comply with “the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action”.
Trump’s presidency has been characterised by anti-immigration policies, including a travel ban that targeted mainly Muslim-majority nations and a (subsequently reversed) move to separate parents and children in families found to be crossing the US-Mexico border illegally. Biden has made clear his commitment to DACA, but addressing the more than 400 policy changes implemented by Trump to restrict immigration will be a lengthy process, and will no doubt be met with resistance by the many who have been stoked by four years of anti-immigration rhetoric.
In 2015, Obama unveiled the Clean Power Plan (CPP), a scheme by which the US could meet its Paris Agreement targets. The aim was to cut carbon emissions by 26-28% relative to 2005 levels, the equivalent of taking 70% of the nation’s cars off the road. Trump has since replaced the CPP with the less ambitious Affordable Clean Energy rule, which has no targets for cutting emissions, and has also withdrawn the US from the Paris Agreement.
Trump’s legacy here should be relatively straightforward to undo. Biden has pledged to re-join the Paris Agreement immediately upon taking office, and even to go further than Obama did by bringing in policies to make the US carbon-neutral by 2050.
Under Obama, the US entered the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iran would drastically reduce uranium enrichment and stockpiling in return for the reduction of economic sanctions. Trump withdrew from this in 2018. Two years later, and despite Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign to cripple the Iranian economy, Iran is yet to agree to begin negotiations for a new deal. Biden has pledged to offer Iran “a credible path back to diplomacy”, promising to re-join the deal if Iran first complies with the agreement’s nuclear restrictions.
Image: Michael Vadon via Creative Commons