Barack Obama’s Legacy Is More Secure Than You, or the GOP, Think

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Excerpted from Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail, by Jonathan Chait, writer at New York Magazine. Published January 17 by Custom House, an imprint of William Morrow. 

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Obama's Legacy By Ross Douthat

Barack Obama is one of a handful of presidents with transformative domestic legacies. Some of those presidents, like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, left their office to a chosen successor who carried forward their vision. Lyndon Johnson saw his popularity dissipate in response to a failed war. Abraham Lincoln was murdered, and his successor, Andrew Johnson, was a pro-slavery southern Democrat who abhorred Lincoln’s vision. There is no precedent for a departing chief executive like Barack Obama. Having saved the economy from ruin, reshaped health care and environmental policy, and reformed the financial industry, he leaves office as the most popular politician in America, to be succeeded by a man who has mocked his work, not to mention the legitimacy of his citizenship, and has pledged to destroy it all.

After conservatives spent the Obama years terrified he’d sent their country spiraling into a socialist dystopia, and liberals spent it fretting he had done too little, they are mostly united in their belief that Donald Trump will erase the entire Obama project in the blink of an eye. On November 10, Charles Krauthammer gloated, “Obama’s legacy is toast; it’s gone.” Many liberals quickly arrived at the same conclusion. “What will outlast Trump?” asked John Judis in The New Republic. “We just threw everything out!” But this assumption is too shallow and too confident. It reflects, in part, the conservative fallacy that Obama mostly relied on easily reversible executive orders and the liberal fallacy that he mostly floundered in the face of Republican obstruction. The truth is that Obama enacted careful, deep, and mostly popular solutions to a broad array of problems to which his opponents have no workable response. For all the horrors Trump may yet unleash, the specific changes Obama wrought may prove far more durable than either his gloating enemies or his despairing supporters believe.

Some of these changes are being overlooked or misunderstood today, just as they were when they first were enacted. The 2009 stimulus, for instance, included a tax credit for workers at the bottom of the income scale, the primary purpose of which was to get more cash into the hands of people who could spend it quickly. It succeeded at this task, but it also served a long-term social objective of making the tax code more progressive. In 2015, Obama struck a deal with the Republican Congress to make those tax cuts permanent in return for making permanent a series of supposedly temporary business tax cuts that had been routinely extended for years. Also, in 2013, the administration allowed expiring Bush-era tax cuts on incomes over $450,000 to lapse, which triggered the return of higher Clinton-era tax rates. The combined effect of lower taxes on the middle class and the poor, higher taxes on the wealthy, and Obamacare provisions reduced post-tax incomes for the highest-earning one percent by more than 5 percent and increased incomes for the lowest-earning tenth of households by an average of 27 percent. With vanishingly little attention, Obama had moved the needle against income inequality.

Ever since the Reagan administration, Republicans have spent every ounce of their political capital on shifting the tax burden off the rich and onto everybody else, and Trump is very likely to sign into law a big tax cut for the rich. But Republicans will have a harder time undoing Obama’s tax cuts for struggling Americans, and the harder they work to reward the rich at the expense of the poor, the more they will scuff up Trump’s self-styled image as the enemy of the elite. The energy they exert on erasing Obama’s tax policy will come at substantial political cost.

Obama had hoped his successor would accelerate the clean-energy revolution he began, a plan obviously foiled by the election of a president who has deemed climate science a Chinese-authored hoax and has pledged to eliminate all federal regulation of greenhouse-gas pollution. Unlike other extreme positions Trump has taken, most of which would inflict immediate harm on many Americans, his opposition to any policy to slow climate change stands a good chance of remaining in place because its effects will sink in long after he departs. Containing climate change ultimately requires not just continuing Obama’s policies but expanding and deepening them, ultimately weaning the economy off carbon altogether. The most hopeful scenario, which had finally come into view at the end of Obama’s term, was rendered moot by Trump’s election. And the damage wrought will likely be irreversible: A glacier cannot easily be unmelted. ...




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