For a soon-to-be nowhere man, he’s everywhere. Sensing “time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” as the poet had it, President Barack Obama is using every hour left in his presidency to ensure that Donald Trump will not erase it all.
It’s one part vanity project. What president doesn’t want to put a dent in history? One man freed 4 million slaves. Another created national parks and forests that left every American a rich inheritance of public land. A third crushed the Nazis — from a wheelchair, while dying.
And Obama? He bequeaths the incoming president “the longest economic expansion and monthly job creation in history,” as my colleague Andrew Ross Sorkin noted. Trump, the pumpkin-haired rooster taking credit for the dawn, has already tried to seize a bit of that achievement as his own. Thanks, Obama. But he’s also likely to screw it up, perhaps by a trade war, or a budget-busting tax cut.
Already, Trump has flirted with treason, flouted conflict-of-interest rules, bullied dissidents and blown off the advice of seasoned public servants. He has yet to hold a news conference since winning the election. And did another day just pass without a word of the promise to “reveal things that other people don’t know” about Russian interference with our election? Maybe he’s waiting for more whispers in his ear from the Kremlin.
In advance of his farewell address next week, the president has tried to Trump-proof a climate pact that commits the world’s second-leading producer of earth-warming pollutants — the United States — to making this little orb of ours a less perilous place for Sasha’s and Malia’s and Ivanka’s kids. Trump has promised to go rogue on the planet, as quickly as he can.
Until Day 1, Trump is just a 70-year-old man with a twitchy Twitter account. But on Jan. 20, he becomes what Grover Norquist wished for in a pliantly conservative president: “A Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen.”
With that pen, the new president can take health care from 20 million Americans, free Wall Street to once again wildly speculate and smash things up for the rest of us, and require schools to let people carry guns into classrooms — all campaign promises.
Make America Sick Again is the slogan floated by Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is much better at messaging a negative than Obama ever was at messaging a positive. The people who stand to lose most are Trump supporters. The Affordable Care Act has saved countless lives in red states, and slowed medical costs. So why toss it, without a plan to replace it? To spite the guy on the way out.
The intent of Republicans, poised to push through the most far-reaching conservative agenda in nearly a hundred years, is to act as if Obama never existed — the George Bailey of presidents. It won’t take long for Bedford Falls to become Pottersville.
Trump will cut taxes on the rich, and for those born on third base, eliminate an estate tax that was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s solutions to inequality. He may try to defund Planned Parenthood — for many poor women, the only chance to catch cancer early. He may deport Dreamers, more than 740,000 young people who have been allowed to obtain temporary work permits and avoid being thrown out of the country under Obama.
On his first day in office, Trump will “repeal every single Obama executive order.” That’s the promise of Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Obama issued just under 270 executive orders, well below the number proclaimed by Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt and even that conservative paragon, Silent Cal Coolidge.
A significant Obama order protected gays in the government contracting system from discrimination. Another prohibited federal employees from texting while driving. There were sanctions against criminals, mobsters and other international monsters, and upgrades in pay for federal employees who earned less than their private sector counterparts.
And get this: Repealing “every single Obama executive order” would require Trump to dump four edicts that allowed federal workers to leave early on Christmas Eve. The War on Christmas heavy breathers at Fox News, who recently declared said conflict dead and won for St. Nick’s side, will surely be outraged. Not.
Obama leaves office with his highest job approval ratings in four years. Most Americans like him and his policies. Trump will enter office with the lowest transition approval ratings of any president-elect in nearly a quarter-century. About half of all Americans don’t like him, and of course, he got nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton.
Most of the Trump agenda — building a wall, cutting taxes on the rich, ramping up oil and gas drilling at the expense of alternative fuels, taking away people’s health care — is opposed by clear majorities. Trump will erase Obama’s policy legacy at his peril.
What he cannot do is erase the mark of the man — a measured and rational president, a committed father and husband, who is leaving his country much better off, and the office without a trace of personal scandal.
Timothy Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter.