President Trump dismantled yet another part of President Obama’s legacy this week, by removing the United States from the Paris climate accord. Obama’s legacy, largely consisting of executive overreach, cut corners, and half fixes, is once again proving easy to erase.
When the Paris climate agreement was signed at the United Nations in April 2016, the Obama Administration heralded it as “the most ambitious climate change agreement in history.” The accord is often cited as one of the most important acts of his second term. Prominent presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin listed it as a key feature of his legacy. While the agreement was still being discussed, the New York Times went as far as to claim that Obama’s legacy was at stake if the negotiations proved unsuccessful.
If his domestic regulations and a Paris accord withstand efforts to gut them, “climate change will become the heart and soul of his presidency” [Rice University presidential historian Douglas] Brinkley told the New York Times.
Indeed, the Paris climate accord is now gutted and left for dead.
But my purpose is not to discuss climate change, the merits of the Paris agreement, or the fallout of America’s withdrawal.
I am here to lead the funeral procession for Barack Obama’s pen and phone, and to let their demise serve as a warning to Donald Trump.
During his second term, fed up with Congress, Obama decided that negotiating with the Republicans was too difficult. There was little common ground between the White House and legislature, and Obama had an ambitious agenda he wished to implement.
“We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need. I’ve got a pen and a phone,” Obama said in early 2014.
That would be a common refrain from Obama for the balance of his presidency. With said pen and with said phone, Obama flexed the power of the administrative state to push his liberal agenda in education, gay rights, immigration, foreign policy, and the environment. Some initiatives were stymied by successful lawsuits, but Obama was largely successful in weaponizing the federal bureaucracy to bypass Congress as much as possible.
One of the most difficult parts of the presidency, particularly during polarized times such as these, is to go about the difficult slog of governing. Developing relationships with congressional leaders, whipping up votes, wading into the weeds on complex policy, making tough decisions to come to a majority consensus: these are the difficult, unseen, and unglamorous parts of governing a nation. The legislative process takes a tremendous amount of deliberation and consensus, as the founders intended.
Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, both former governors, managed to achieve legislative accomplishments by working with a hostile Congress. Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House throughout the 1980s, once called Reagan the most ignorant man to ever inhabit the White House, and “Herbert Hoover with a smile.” Of course, Clinton and former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich never had anything but disdain for each other.
Yet Reagan and O’Neill still managed to pass legislation on tax reform, national defense, gun rights, voting rights, and immigration. Clinton and Gingrich managed to address welfare reform, gay marriage, and taxes.
Unlike Clinton and Reagan, President Obama was a political amateur. He came to office on a tide of speeches and platitudes, but with no real governing experience. His only signature legislative achievements occurred in the first year of his presidency when he had a filibuster proof majority in the Senate.
When the going got tough, Obama resorted to his pen and phone. This was the easy way out. It paid short term dividends, allowing him to make more speeches as he implemented one vacuous policy after another. His supporters claimed victory in the name of progress, while the other half of the country became hopelessly convinced everyday that they were losing their country and there was nothing Congress could do about it. Their only hope to stop the march of progressive tyranny through the administrative state was to win the White House.
In their desperation, they elected another political amateur, Donald Trump. Like Obama, he has no governing experience. He, too, came to power on a tide of speeches and platitudes.
To the extent that Trump was voted into the presidency to undo Obama’s flimsy legacy, the Paris climate agreement is the latest is a string of achievements. Trump has reversed course on transgender bathrooms, immigration enforcement, and other executive actions. With each new measure, Trump, like his predecessor before him, takes a victory lap in the name of progress for his supporters.
The day is coming, however, when Trump will not be in office. A Democrat will eventually be elected, and he or she will be free to reverse (or re-reverse!) every executive action taken by Trump.
The only way to form a lasting legacy is to engage in the difficult work of lawmaking. To set the country on a conservative trajectory for decades to come, Trump and Congressional Republicans must pass major legislation. Thus far, Trump has proven lackluster in his attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare, the only real legislative achievement on which Obama’s legacy can rely. Other efforts, such as tax reform, are struggling to get off the ground.
Almost all legislation will require a few Democratic senators to overcome a filibuster. That will be tough, but it was difficult for Reagan and Clinton too. Partisanship and polarization are not new.
With every new executive action, Trump is shoveling more dirt into the grave of Obama’s pen and phone legacy. He would be wise to assure his successor can’t do the same.