Six months into Donald Trump’s presidency and the legacy of his predecessor that he’d promised to erase is proving stubbornly enduring.
That’s the reality Trump awoke to Tuesday morning after Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare cratered in the Senate and after his administration formally certified Iran’s compliance with the nuclear accord Tehran negotiated with President Barack Obama and five other nations.
Whether Trump is absorbing how the Obama agenda has persevered is another question entirely. White House aides and the president’s advisers say they try to keep him happy by routinely conveying to him that his administration has been a smashing legislative and political success—despite ample evidence to the contrary.
Multiple Trump administration officials detailed to The Daily Beast how senior staffers have a long-standing practice of assuring Trump of the quantity of his major accomplishments (of which he has barely any legislative and some administrative) and of placating him by flagging positive media coverage, typically from right-wing outlets.
This is, in part, a means to avoid further upsetting a president who is already prone to irrationally taking out his anger and professional frustrations on senior staff and who also has a penchant for yelling at the TV. It’s also one of the reasons President Trump will often boast, on Twitter and in other public fora, of how “no administration has accomplished more in” a comparable amount of time, or how “we’ve signed more bills—and I’m talking about through the legislature—than any president, ever.”
Many of the president’s advisers are well aware of the scoreboard. “I mean, of course we know that,” one White House official told The Daily Beast. “It’s not… tough to see how little movement there’s been [on major agenda items].” And they’ve begun looking for scapegoats for why major chunks of Obama’s legacy remain intact.
Privately, aides fume that Republicans who ran—and won—on Obamacare repeal have suddenly turned gun-shy. “You’d think this would be easy, it’s only been the GOP platform for seven years,” one senior White House aide said.
Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to talk about legislative strategies.
The assumption that a “lightning strike” on Obamacare would be simpler factored into the White House’s decision to go straight for repeal-and-replace in the early months of Trump’s presidency, rather than tacking toward bipartisan ideas such as the president’s proposed trillion-dollar infrastructure package.
What aides didn’t account for was the reluctance of congressional Republicans to actually see their seven-year promise become law. Though the president was more engaged in the fight over the initial House version of the Obamacare-gutting bill, Trump barely lifted a finger when it came time to woo senators. As one Republican Hill staffer put it, beyond some efforts to browbeat recalcitrant Republicans into submission, “the only time he really involved himself in a big way was in 140 character tweets.”
The senior White House aide put it even more bluntly, saying that the administration suffered from its own self-aggrandizing, anti-establishment aura.
“When you stack a White House with people who’ve never worked in Washington, people who openly disdain Washington, you’re basically trying to elevate people who don’t understand Congress, don’t understand how you make a law,” the official griped.
Aides to Barack Obama said on Tuesday that they weren’t surprised that solid chunks of their policy portfolio remain intact this far into the Trump administration. After all, much of it was built with sustainability in mind.
Agreeing to the Iran deal was controversial within foreign policy circles but the prospect of ripping it up and facilitating a nuclear arms race was far more alarming. Opening relations with Cuba would ruffle feathers but it would be far trickier to tell businesses they could no longer operate on the island. Granting legal protections to the so-called Dreamers would prove contentious but it would be far more inflammatory to deport that group. Developing a new strategy to defeat ISIS was Trump’s thing on the campaign trail—until he got into office and his strategy began looking a lot like his Democratic predecessor’s. And for however hard it was to pass Obamacare it would prove far more untenable to tear away the coverage it provided.
“I’m not sure the Republicans have an agreed upon goal other than to get rid of Obamacare,” former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told The Daily Beast. “And that turns out to be not a very good goal and not agreed upon either.”
But like the second aforementioned Trump aide, Obama’s team also felt that much of the Trump administration’s unfamiliarity with Washington worked in their favor. That was true particularly on health care reform, which has bedeviled nearly every administration past.
“I’d love to tell you we were sitting and thinking about history when we were working on the details of the Affordable Care Act but this is just really hard. Remember we came in with a bit of a roadmap that had been developed over decade, more really, of bipartisan work that had gone on between the parties,” Nancy Ann Deparle, Obama’s top health care aide during the construction of the Affordable Care Act, told The Daily Beast. “If there was some other way to do this, and achieve those goals, if you wanted to call it vanilla instead of chocolate, if you didn’t like the flavor we had, and if what you had worked, then we would have been with you. But it’s just not that easy to do.”
All of which is not to say that Obama’s legacy is now firmly intact. Trump has pledged to have the health care law fail as a means of compelling Democrats to negotiate, and he has the administrative means to try to do so. Beyond health care, he has already made progress in undoing much of Obama’s climate policy, undoing numerous regulations, and pulling the United States out of the Paris accord, which set robust carbon emission standards for countries to meet. He’s scrapped trade deals that Obama proposed and built pipelines that Obama shelved.
But his failure to make more legislative inroads is quickly becoming a defining feature of his first year in office. And for however hard his aides try to shield him from this reality, bits of it appear to be setting in. Shortly after three Senate Republicans announced that they would oppose leaderships repeal-only fallback option, Trump made a brief appearance before the press. He expressed his disappointment with the development, pledged to move ahead, and touted some meaningless numbers.
“Essentially, the vote would have been pretty close to, if you look at it, 48-4,” Trump told reporters.
“That’s a pretty impressive vote by any standard,” the president insisted.