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Why Barack Obama thinks his legacy will survive Donald Trump

US President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump to update him on transition planning in the Oval Office at the White House on November 10, 2016 in Washington,DC.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Image
US President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump to update him on transition planning in the Oval Office at the White House on November 10, 2016 in Washington,DC.

The New Yorker's David Remnick has a long, powerful piece entitled "Obama Reckons With A Trump Presidency." It's the most insight we're going to get into Barack Obama's reaction to Donald Trump's ascension, and it's worth considering carefully.

Remnick was with President Obama before, during, and after the election, and you can tell the reporting began in a very different place than it ended. Remnick probably thought he would record Obama's reflections as he prepared to turn power over to Hillary Clinton, his chosen successor.

Instead, he found himself watching something very different: a president trying to convince himself, his staff, his party, his nation, and the world that Trump's presidency is just a temporary, manageable zag as the arc of American history continues its long bend towards justice.

Much of the piece is Remnick asking over and over again if Obama is truly as calm as he looks. Obama swears he is. "I don't believe in apocalyptic until the apocalypse comes," he says. "I think nothing is the end of the world until the end of the world."

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There are arguments Obama makes in the piece that aren't convincing. But there's one argument he makes in particular that's very convincing. Call it the Obama Baseline.

Remnick reminds Obama that he called Trump "uniquely unqualified," "temperamentally unfit," and warned Americans that Trump's election would mean the destruction of all that Obama's presidency had achieved. Did he still believe that?

"Now that the election is over, no, I don't believe it," Obama says. His argument is worth hearing — though it's worth noting that Obama does not appear to try and rebut his warnings about Trump's lack of qualifications or poor temperament:

"As a practical matter, what I've been saying to people, including my own staff, is that the federal government is an aircraft carrier, it's not a speedboat. And, if you need any evidence of that, think about how hard we worked over the last eight years with a very clear progressive agenda, with a majority in the House and in the Senate, and we accomplished as much domestically as any President since Lyndon Johnson in those first two years. But it was really hard."

Obama said that he had accomplished "seventy or seventy-five per cent" of what he set out to do, and "maybe fifteen per cent of that gets rolled back, twenty per cent, but there's still a lot of stuff that sticks."

One way to think about this argument is to look at the Bush baseline that structured Obama's administration. Obama ran against Bush's two wars (Iraq in concept, Afghanistan in execution), and while both are technically over, neither has completely ended. Obama ran against the Guantanamo Bay prison, but it remains open.

Obama ran against the Bush tax cuts, but he ultimately made most of them permanent. Liberals blasted both No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D in the 2008 election, but the Obama administration built on NCLB (while fixing some of its worst problems) and expanded Medicare Part D.

Trump and congressional Republicans will, similarly, find themselves working from the Obama baseline. Take Obamacare — as much as Republicans loathe it, they know it's delivering insurance to more than 20 million people, and many of those people are their own constituents. They admit openly that they can't repeal it without some kind of replacement.

The result has been some truly strange contortions, including a too-clever-by-half plan where Republicans will vote to repeal Obamacare, but the repeal won't trigger for at least two years, theoretically giving the GOP time to craft and pass their replacement. It is worth stopping for a moment to appreciate the underlying theory here: Republicans will trigger a national health insurance crisis to try to force themselves to come up with the replacement plan that has long eluded them.

After years in which Republicans tried to gain leverage on Obama by creating unnecessary crises, they are now, it seems, turning the same strategy on themselves.

This is not a wise approach, to say the least. Among other things, insurance markets will collapse during the interim. But this is the problem for Republicans: much like Obama with the Bush tax cuts, they need to take reality as it is, and that means coming to accommodation with the millions of people who depend on a program they don't like.

The same is true of the Iran nuclear deal. As Zeeshan Aleem explains, Republicans who want to rip up the agreement will need to grapple with the reality that Tehran has already gotten its money back and seen the sanctions against it lifted, and we have no way to reimpose the international sanctions or take back most of the money. The result is that violating the agreement means Iran gets everything they wanted, and we get nothing we wanted.

Which isn't to deny that much of Obama's legacy is vulnerable. His executive action protecting DREAMers can simply be undone. The Paris climate agreement can be unsigned. Much of Dodd-Frank can be repealed, and the relevant regulatory agencies can be stocked with leaders who don't believe in regulation.

But presidential administrations have limited time and political capital. The energy you spend undoing your predecessor's work is energy you can't spend accomplishing your own proactive goals. If Donald Trump wants to reform the tax code, a bitter, costly fight over repealing and replacing Obamacare will make that harder. If he wants to build a wall across the border with Mexico, that's time he can't spend revisiting Obama's work on education.

Which is all to say that there will be much that sticks from the Obama baseline. I don't know if it's 80 percent or 50 percent. But my guess is it'll prove to be more than people are expecting right now, just as was true for the Bush baseline.

Commentary by Ezra Klein, the editor-in-chief of Vox. Follow him on Twitter @ezraklein.

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