President Barack Obama gave his farewell address from Chicago last week with a domestic legacy in jeopardy. President-elect Donald J. Trump and a Republican Congress seem poised to undo everything Obama has done in the United States in his two terms in office. Odds are, few major Obama policies will make it through the next four years untouched.
Many Democrats consider the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—known more colloquially as Obamacare—as the biggest accomplishment of the Obama Administration. Thanks to Obamacare, 30 million more Americans now have health insurance. Unfortunately, it will likely be the first policy to fall. Conservatives have begun calls to repeal Obamacare and seem poised to focus their resources on eliminating the law. Senate Republicans have already passed measures that prevent Democrats from filibustering key ACA components. Republicans only need 51 votes (instead of the standard of 60 to end a filibuster) to gut Obamacare. Most notably, part of the law’s nucleus, sections that require employers and individuals to have health insurance, are slated to fall. Without those mandates, the Affordable Care Act cannot sustain itself because there are not enough people paying into the system to keep costs affordable. If Democrats want to fight the collapse of our healthcare system, they will have to oppose any repeal of Obamacare with tooth and nail.
On immigration policies, Obama has had to go over Congress to help protect the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. One executive order, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), currently authorizes work permits for people who arrived in the country as children. It does not provide legal status but it does shield children and young adults from deportation to a country some never knew. The other policy, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), would have also shielded parents of citizens from deportation. While the former remains in effect, the latter was struck down by a federal court, a decision upheld by a tied Supreme Court.
If Trump wishes to undo the former, he can do so with the stroke of a pen. Since DACA is an executive order—signed by Obama without any approval from Congress—Trump can easily create another order rendering it void. Doing so would be controversial: many undocumented immigrants live in large, so-called “sanctuary cities” like New York and Los Angeles. These large cities also house the liberal elite that Trump had railed against on the campaign trail. Repealing DACA would put Trump at odds with the Democratic mayors of those cities, but at the same time, galvanize support from the rural base that carried him to victory in November. While undoing another keystone in Obama’s legacy, he would attempt to fulfill his campaign promise of deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants.
When Obama took office, he inherited one of the worst economic disasters in history. Since then, the economy has made a strong recovery in part because of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The law authorized the federal government to give billions of dollars to states and municipalities to fund infrastructure projects, prevent teacher layoffs, invest in clean energy, and more. In addition to signing the stimulus package into law, the Obama Administration also intervened in the automotive industry by purchasing stakes in the then-failing General Motors. Today, GM employs tens of thousands of Americans. Overall unemployment is at a low not seen since 2007, before the Great Recession. One would think that a stimulus package of over $800 billion and a $51 billion auto industry bailout would cause our debt to skyrocket, and that is partially true; the United States’ debt is at an all-time high, but that is not the whole story: part of the money the government borrowed was used to finance the Recovery Act. Despite debt continuing to climb since then, the federal budget deficit—the difference between government spending and revenue—has been on the decline. Such a trend will not continue if Trump’s proposed tax cuts come into effect. Cutting taxes without a simultaneous cut in spending will drive the national debt up even higher and put the United States at the risk of bankruptcy.
Obama has also been a strong supporter of environmental policy. Though his stance on the Dakota Access Pipeline has been relatively weak, he has shown that he is willing to oppose similar projects. He vetoed the Keystone XL Pipeline project and created the largest natural reserve on the planet through his expansion of Hawaii’s Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. The Obama Administration also helped forge the Paris Agreement to mitigate greenhouse gas emission and in December, indefinitely closed off large parts of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans from oil drilling and helped forge the Paris Agreement. (The Paris Agreement isn’t strictly domestic policy, but still worth mentioning because power in the United States plants have already reached emissions quota for 2024.) However, it’s unlikely that these policies will continue under President Trump, who has nominated deniers of climate change to his cabinet. Trump owns stock in companies financing the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Republican Congress can reopen drilling in closed waters by passing another law, and the Paris agreement, too, has a hazy future.
Obama has a strong record on social issues. In 2009 he signed into law the Matthew Shepard Act, expanding criteria for hate crimes to include members of the LGBT community. People who identify as LGBT are also now allowed to serve openly in the military because of the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Obama was not only the first president to call for full equality for the gay community, but has also acted to fulfill his promise. Perhaps the biggest win for social activists during Obama’s tenure was the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage. Though Obama can’t take direct credit for the decision, he did appoint two liberal Justices whose legacies will extend far beyond Obergefell v. Hodges. Indeed, Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor will bring both diversity and a strong liberal presence to the court for years to come. While that is something Trump cannot undo, he will tip the court in his favor by appointing a conservative justice to fill the vacancy left by Antonin Scalia.
In short, Obama has worked hard to help move America in the right direction. His stances on issues ranging from the economy to health care helped him build a strong fortress of liberal policies over the past eight years. However, the future of that fortress is dubious as Donald Trump stands at its gate