President Obama bet his presidency on executive power, acting without Congress to implement his agenda with the understanding that his legacy rested largely on whether his successor kept his maneuvers intact.
Suddenly, the president’s signature accomplishments are in peril on climate change, immigration and foreign policy. His chief legislative triumph, the healthcare reform law known as Obamacare, is one that Republicans in Congress are eager to repeal and Trump has promised to replace.
"We’re going to fix healthcare, make it more affordable and better,” Trump said Thursday after his first meeting with Republican leaders in Congress. “... We’re going to do a real job for the public."
Obama is scrambling to salvage his agenda with little more than a public relations strategy to help him.
Arguing that the president’s achievements will take more unwinding than Trump or Republicans believe and that they are popular with Americans, Obama aides are preparing a campaign to remind the public of what’s at stake if his regulations, executive orders and negotiated agreements are rolled back.
Erasing Obama’s deeds will upset Americans, argued Josh Earnest, White House press secretary. "That's something that Republicans will have to consider moving forward."
But not only did Trump's victory jeopardize Obama’s chief accomplishments, it also likely ended the president's admittedly weak opportunity to complete his presidency with a flurry of last-minute victories during a lame-duck session of Congress. Aides had hoped that if Hillary Clinton won the presidential race and Democrats made gains in Congress, the outgoing Republican majorities might agree to deals with Obama on trade, criminal justice reform and perhaps even his Supreme Court nomination eight months ago of Merrick Garland, which Republicans have refused to consider.
Instead, as Republicans prepare to take control of the executive and legislative branches, Obama is planning a farewell tour of the country, aides say, to send a message of unity but also to remind Americans of what they stand to lose if Republicans peel back his actions.
On Obamacare, formally known as the Affordable Care Act, 20 million people stand to lose healthcare coverage if the law were repealed. Obama’s strategy is to remind those consumers about what they stand to lose, in turn pressing Republicans to come up with a replacement that ensures their coverage remains intact.
"A lot of his signature programs are going to get gutted," predicted presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “But this idea that Obama’s suddenly losing his legacy is premature. He may lose the Affordable Care Act, which is a major part of his legacy. But the amount of things he’s been able to do over eight years will be looked upon well in history."
Obama aides hope to take advantage of divides within the GOP about the best path forward, and Democratic allies in Congress are plotting how to fend off Republican efforts to undo Obama’s key accomplishments and to work with Trump on issues where there is some agreement.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), for instance, has cited a "robust infrastructure jobs bill" and child care and paid family leave issues, which Trump campaigned on but that Republicans have opposed, as areas of potential cooperation.
Nullifying other key Obama accomplishments might not be as easy as Trump made it sound on the campaign trail. For example, the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, which Trump repeatedly assailed as a sign that Obama is a weak negotiator, can’t be easily undone without the other countries involved. Trump could conceivably reimpose sanctions on Iran that Obama eased as part of the agreement, but that would free Iran to fire up its reactors again.
As for other international agreements, like the global landmark climate accord reached in Paris in December, Trump can refuse to take the steps toward carbon reduction that Obama agreed to.
Other administrative actions on climate are easier to undo, like regulations of coal-fired power plants or fuel efficiency standards for cars. Still, many industries have already adapted to the regulations and made investments they can’t recoup; that could put corporate pressure on Trump to preserve them.
Trump may also find, as Obama did, that declaring intent to act doesn’t always bring about change right away. Eight years after ordering the closure of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, for example, Obama still hasn’t been able to make it happen.
Obama and Trump met for 90 minutes at the White House on Thursday. Aides said Obama had not planned to litigate old grievances with Trump in their first sit-down meeting, and so probably did not bring up the issue of birtherism with the man who used it to undermine his presidency for years.
Afterward, the two exchanged pleasantries and sounded flattering notes in their remarks to reporters in the Oval Office, and Trump dashed to Capitol Hill to weigh in more specifically on agenda items.
Meeting with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan in the Wisconsin Republican’s ceremonial office, Trump ticked off the big items he campaigned on: immigration, lower taxes and healthcare, saying his administration was “going to make it more affordable.”
“We are going to do absolutely spectacular things for the American people,” Trump said, “and I look forward to starting.”
Whatever parts of the Obama presidency Trump has pledged to undo, Brinkley predicted, Obama was likely trying to preserve as he opened a new chapter in his relationship with Trump.
"One thing I know Barack Obama is not going to do,” said Brinkley, “is start belittling Donald Trump.”
Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.