WASHINGTON — If one thing has defined President Trump’s approach to policy in his first year in office, it is his extraordinary zeal in trying to erase the accomplishments of his predecessor, Barack Obama.
From the petty (axing the White House bike-sharing station) to the profound (the Affordable Care Act), Trump has sought to roll back Obama achievements across the waterfront.
Some of those attempts have failed — the health law lives, though one key piece of it, the individual mandate, appears about to go away — but the intensity of Trump’s effort to bust up his predecessor’s legacy hasn’t ebbed a bit.
And he has had some real successes: Through executive actions, regulatory rollbacks, and personnel appointments — especially to the judiciary — Trump has made serious headway toward his goal, even as some of his own major legislative intitiatives have languished.
“It’s been pretty clear from the beginning, one animating principle of this administration and, in particular, of this president, has been to consider anything that their predecessor did as bad,” said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.
“If you want to convince Donald Trump of doing something,’’ he said, “rather than arguing the positives of why something would be good for the country or good for his administration, all you have to do is explain to him that this is the opposite of what Obama did.”
Trump is seeking to reverse Obama’s policies “with a vehemence and an order of magnitude that is different” from previous modern administrations, Engel said. “More importantly, there doesn’t seem to be a construction of an ideology so much as a deconstruction of the predecessor’s legacy.”
It’s also exactly what Trump’s most ardent fans wanted when they cast their ballots for the former reality TV star.
On the campaign trail, Trump heaped disdain on Obama’s record, vowing at stadium rallies to use his first days in office to erase the Affordable Care Act, pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, withdraw from the Paris climate accord, cancel the Iran nuclear deal, and overturn “every single” and “unconstitutional’’ Obama executive order.
Trump’s supporters say his early record in pushing through regulatory rollbacks is a quiet triumph not fully appreciated.
“They’ve undone a lot of the damage done [by] Obama through executive orders,” Roger Stone, a longtime Trump friend and confidante, said in an interview. “I think the president is in very good shape with his core constituency, which means he continues to have a slim governing majority in the country. If you’re a Trump supporter, I think you’ve got to be pretty happy today.”
Stone recently posted a list, supplied by a reader, on his blog StoneColdTruth that claims 95 Trump accomplishments, with a heading, “This isn’t said enough.”
Republicans believe Trump’s anti-Obama instincts are helping boost the economy, said Sam Geduldig, a former top Republican congressional staffer who now leads a GOP public affairs and lobbying firm, the CGCN Group.
“The business community and every single industry, whether it’s energy or banking or agriculture, feel like they are no longer at war with their regulators,’’ he said. “That has created a level of confidence among the leaders of these industries and the economy that is proving to be successful.”
Trump has installed Cabinet secretaries and other officials who are far friendlier to business than those in the Obama era, and has directed his agency chiefs to scrap reams of rules — a project Trump celebrated Thursday in a Roosevelt Room appearance featuring a pair of golden scissors, a strip of red tape, and a mountain of paper representing all the federal regulations currently on the books.
As a result of his efforts, Trump bragged, “the never-ending growth of red tape in America has come to a sudden, screeching, and beautiful halt.”
Even on one of Trump’s most high-profile policy failures — wiping out Obama’s signature health law, which he promised during the campaign to do “very, very quickly” — Trump has still made several moves that have helped weaken the current system, health experts say.
Trump shortened the 2018 enrollment period while at the same time dramatically slashing budgets for advertising and outreach to get people enrolled. Those steps could, some analysts believe, send some individual Affordable Care Act insurance plans into a “death spiral.’’
The combination means you’re more likely to attract mostly sick people to the health care marketplaces, while the healthy are less likely to show up, said Craig Garthwaite, a Republican health economist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
“An insurance market that attracts the sick and not the healthy is failing. It feeds into a . . . false narrative that the ACA was failing before the election,” he said.
The continued GOP push in Congress to end the “individual mandate,” which requires that all Americans either purchase insurance or pay a tax penalty, could exacerbate the trend of healthier consumers staying out of the marketplaces, sending premiums even higher and leading millions to drop coverage, experts say.
With Trump’s enthusiastic Twitter-backing, House and Senate Republicans included the mandate repeal in the tax bill they are hoping to get to the president’s desk by Christmas.
Of course, trying to undo the last president’s legacy is not new for new commanders in chief.
Ronald Reagan stripped away the solar panels Jimmy Carter symbolically installed on the White House roof, recalled Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. He also didn’t invite Carter to see his own official portrait unveiled.
Franklin D. Roosevelt came to power expressing and acting out of a clear disdain for how his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, failed to act aggressively in the face of the Great Depression.
“It’s usually normal in a political playbook. It’s not civil, and it’s a way of scapegoating a predecessor,” Brinkley said. “What’s unique about Trump is his public lies about Barack Obama, his trying to defame his character,” he said, pointing to Trump’s claims that his predecessor wiretapped him — which would be a felony — and his claims that Obama was not born in the United States.
“It’s not just unprecedented, it’s deeply sordid,” Brinkley said.
Former Obama administration officials contend Trump so far has a pretty mixed record on dismantling their former boss’s work.
On some foreign policy issues, Trump’s “bark has been tougher and louder than the bite,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and national security aide to Obama.
On the Iran nuclear deal, Price noted, Trump in October made a big show, complete with televised White House address, that he was formally “decertifying” the deal.
But he didn’t actually pull the United States out of the deal. Instead, he pushed the decision to Congress by triggering a 60-day deadline for lawmakers to reimpose sanctions on Iran. That Dec. 12 deadline passed without action.
While the politics of his big announcement were very good for Trump, Price said, on the substance of the Iran deal “nothing changed, and it’s very unlikely that anything will change, precisely because the Trump administration — and perhaps even Trump himself — realizes that there is a very good strategic argument for the Iran deal.”Victoria McGrane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@vgmac.