Every president suffers bitter setbacks – but few, surely, as painful and hard to swallow as the meeting Barack Obama held with his elected successor Donald Trump, a man on whom he has poured nothing but contempt for years.
The Republican businessman’s victory on Tuesday, and his party’s continued control of Congress threatens to wipe away the Obama legacy. The outgoing president indeed was all too aware of the risk. That is why he, and his even more popular wife, campaigned so vigorously for Hillary Clinton. But to no avail, and the reckoning is grim indeed.
Obamacare, the signature measure of his eight years in office, that gave health care to 24m previously uninsured Americans, seems doomed, at least in its present form, despite the scorched earth resistance promised by its supporters.
Mr Trump has pledged to start dismantling the Affordable Care Act “on Day One.” That may be pushing it. But Obamacare was passed on 2010 by side-stepping the need for the usual filibuster-proof 60 vote majority in the Senate. And the outgoing Republican Congress has already done a dry run to show it can get rid of it by using the same procedure – even though Mr Obama naturally vetoed the bill that landed on his desk. The same probably goes for the financial regulations brought in to prevent a repeat of the 2008 crisis.
Even more vulnerable are the the major changes Mr Obama, pushed through by executive order, to circumvent the wall of resistance on Capitol Hill. The orders cover key fields, from immigration to climate change, all fiercely opposed by Republicans. Literally on Day One, Mr Trump can – and has said he will – issue his own orders consigning them to oblivion.
Technically of course, Mr Obama remains in the Oval Office for 70 days yet. But there is little he can do. Issuing further executive waters would be writing on sand. The old Congress does reconvene for a ‘lame duck’ session: this month and next. But there’s scant prospect it’ll do much, beyond passing a few resolutions to ensure continued government funding until the Trump team takes over on January 20.
Mr Obama’s hopes of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison by the time he leaves office, are dashed. His eight month-old nomination of the moderate Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court – that the Senate might finally have taken up if Hillary Clinton had won the White House and Democrats recaptured the Senate – is in the dustbin.
The one thing the lame duck could do, theoretically, is approve the controversial trade pact with Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Mr Obama is set upon it. Majorities in the existing House and Senate support it. But Mr Trump won not least by lambasting such trade deals for destroying US jobs, particularly in Rust Belt states he won on Tuesday. It’s hard to imagine an outgoing Republican Congress passsing something an incoming Republican president abhors.
And that is just the immediate wreckage Mr Obama will be contemplating as he grits his teeth and welcomes his successor into the Oval Office. The Obama era was supposed to set in stone a Democratic advantage in America’s electoral map, as reflected in the 270-vote-majority electoral college. So much for that.
It seemed set to pave the way for the first liberal Supreme Court in generations – assuming Hillary Clinton won. But she didn’t. It will be Mr Trump who fills the existing vacancy on the high court, with a conservative. And he could get to replace two more liberals: Stephen Breyer is 78, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 83. The possibility now is of a conservative Supreme Court for generations.
Finally, as he sits down opposite Mr Trump, the outgoing president may muse on the state of the Democratic party he’s led since 2008. When he came to office, Democrats had an 80-odd seat majority in the House, and almost a veto-proof majority in the Senate. Now they are 40 seats down in the House and failed to take back the Senate when it seemed there for the asking.
Worse still, the Democrats’ reservoir of talent looks thin. Its top Congressional leaders are either old or have no national profile. It has no outstanding state governors. Once the immediate shock of defeat has subsided, a long spell of party infighting is certain, between its populist and establishment wings. A painful legacy indeed.
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