In the absence of any clear ideology associated with Donald Trump’s US presidency, it does seem he has at least one obvious priority that transcends the hype and spin: he is determined to undo his predecessor’s legacy.
Trump’s efforts to “repeal and replace” have had mixed success, just as Obama’s efforts to build that legacy in the first place were stymied by the 2010 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. Obama did push executive branch authority to its limits – most notably when it came to the diplomatic thaw with Cuba – but relying on administrative powers to bring about change was a second-best way of building a robust legacy.
Eight months into his term, Trump has added no major legislative achievements to his name, but he too has used executive powers to chip away at the achievements of his predecessor. Here are some examples of where his administration has tried to roll things back so far.
As a candidate Trump broke with conservative orthodoxy on some key social policy issues, notably in his support for the government-run Medicare and social security programmes. But he joined with Republicans to vociferously denounce Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare”.
Through 2017 congressional Republicans advanced various proposals and the House passed the American HealthCare Act in May, only for this bill to die a death in the Senate. The GOP’s narrow 52–48 majority means there is little room for internal party dissent, giving some voice to the few remaining moderates. The final week in September brought the year’s last-ditch effort at repeal, since the Senate’s arcane rules dictate that the use of the “reconciliation” process, which would preclude any Democratic filibuster of reform, ended on September 30.
Trade and tarriffs
Trump has consistently attacked trade deals that he claims are bad for American workers. Through the campaign he lambasted the North American Free Trade Agreement, which dates back to the George H W Bush and Clinton presidencies, and suggested that the US might impose significant new tariffs on Chinese imports. He was also scornful of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a deal the Obama administration had negotiated with 11 other countries and which encompasses almost 40% of the world’s economy. Here Trump promptly fulfilled his promise and withdrew the US from the agreement, which had yet to come into effect. Regarding other deals while Trump’s rhetoric remained fiery, he has mainly instructed that they be reviewed rather than revoked.
Funding family planning overseas
On his first day in office Trump signed a memorandum reinstating the so-called Mexico City policy, which prevents federal funding from going to NGOs that perform or promote abortion as a means for family planning as part of their work. In May, Trump had announced that it would expand the range of activities that would be prohibited under what critics call the “global gag” rule. The US would save around US$500m a year and Trump scores a win with his socially conservative base, while the number of abortions carried out in Sub-Saharan Africa and other areas is likely to rise, rather than fall. While the funding ban does not affect American women directly, it sends a clear message to them that their president is sympathetic to those who oppose female reproductive autonomy.
Transgender Americans in the armed forces
In August 2017 the president reinstated a ban on transgender recruits signing up to the US Army, and a ban on the military paying for any related medical expenses or surgery. Responsibility for the decisions on what to do regarding the thousands of currently serving transgender army members was left to the generals.
Again, this presidential memo was a direct reaction to an Obama-era initiative. It remains a political flashpoint, and as of September 2017 a six-month delay in implementation has been put in place. Those in favour of the ban decry the notion of the army being used as a forum for “social experiment” while others argue that a person’s qualification and suitability for military service should be the only criteria that matters. Chelsea Manning responded to the ban by stating that the armed forces “have always been a social experiment just as much as a fighting force”.
Speaking to the BBC in the summer of 2015, President Obama noted that his biggest regret as president was the failure to make any headway on gun control. In truth it was only after the Sandy Hook massacre, in which 20 primary school children and their six teachers were gunned down, that he made the issue a top priority. Despite sustained efforts to get Congress on board, his efforts were fruitless, and he was forced to resort to executive action in January 2016. This had symbolic and some substantial value, and if nothing else demonstrated he was prepared to take on the gun lobby. Trump, on the other hand, embraced the gun lobby as a candidate, which rewarded him by donating US$30m to his campaign. That investment began to pay off when President Trump, on February 28 2017, signed a bill that undid one of Obama’s measures to strengthen background checks.
Even in the aftermath of Las Vegas, the biggest mass shooting in modern America, little is likely to change. With 59 dead and hundreds injured, there might seem an opening for political dialogue on the widespread access to weapons of war, but opponents of more regulation will protest against “politicising the issue”. Trump and the Republican party will remain wedded to a culture promoting gun rights, emphatically reinforced by power of the National Rifle Association. Presidential thoughts and prayers, rather than actions, will have to suffice.