Analysis

Beyond the Iran deal: Trump's campaign to undo Obama's legacy

Trump has now rolled back 11 major Obama policies and presidential historian Barbara Perry says he won't stop there.

How much of Obama's legacy can Trump undo? A lot, says presidential historian

U.S. President Donald Trump displays a presidential memorandum after announcing his intent to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement on May 8, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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by Brent Bambury

Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal this week shouldn't have been surprising. His animosity for the agreement was well known. He campaigned on it. He didn't like it because he didn't negotiate it and he really doesn't like the people who did.

"There are a few reasons that President Trump dislikes the Iranian nuclear deal," says David E. Sanger, the national security correspondent for the New York Times.

"First, it was negotiated by Barack Obama."

Bulldozing Obama's legacy is a preoccupation of the 45th president.

I also think it's visceral and personal on Donald Trump's part.- Barbara Perry, Miller Centre, University of Virginia

In addition to weakening the Affordable Care Act, Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  He's tried to impose a ban on transgender military service. He's cancelled Obama's executive orders and slashed Obama-crafted regulations, especially pertaining to the environment.

Presidential history expert Barbara Perry says Trump's actions are both normal and extraordinary.

"I do think that it's part and parcel of presidents wanting to roll back those of the opposing party, those precedents that they think are wrong," she says on Day 6.

"But I also think it's visceral and personal on Donald Trump's part."

Former President Barack Obama in September 2017 in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

No love lost

Perry is director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Centre, an expert on the U.S. Supreme Court and a presidential biographer.

Perry says it is not unusual for previous executives to dislike their predecessors and some presidents were universally unloved.

"Whenever you have presidents of opposing parties, and you have presidents who differ on their policies, there are going to be people who don't like each other," Perry says.

This feels different in the Trump era to have him turning back, again, what most experts believe was actually a good arrangement with the Iranians.- Barbara Perry, Miller Centre, University of Virginia

"I can give you the example of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. There was no love lost between them. Very few people liked Richard Nixon personally, both in his own party and among Democrats and the opposing party."

In Trump, though, Perry sees a shift in both his character and historical context.

"I think that, as is often the case with Donald Trump, he's unprecedented. I call him the unprecedented president. And by that I don't mean that other presidents haven't rolled back policies of their predecessors," she says. "That tradition in this country, and in our government, is as old as our founding and as old as our republic."

Perry says America's founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson fought a bitter, contested and dirty election in 1800 with Jefferson intent on undoing the work of the Adams administration.

Policy rollbacks date back to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. (Getty Images)

"And they of course were battling each other in the campaign and Jefferson tried to roll back — particularly by putting on new judges and justices of the Supreme Court — tried to roll back the Adams policies."

She says with Trump it's more personal.

"I think on this scale, and again on the sort of the personal and visceral approach that Donald Trump has taken — not only in office — to his predecessor Barack Obama, but that he led the birther movement against him, I think proves that it's personal and visceral on his part."

A new global era

Trump's withdrawal from the Iran deal has attracted criticism from the people who framed it and the European allies who hope to salvage it. Perry says Trump's move comes as the U.S. moves away from the political consensus in foreign policy that was enforced by the Cold War.

U.S. President Donald Trump presides over a meeting about immigration in the Cabinet Room at the White House Jan. 9, 2018. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

"There was a common enemy, obviously the Communists. And there was a bipolar world, rather black and white, between the United States and the Soviet Union. And so there was this general feeling [that] it was important to have multilateralism and international law, international treaties, international institutions," Perry says.

"Democrats and Republicans alike — with some differences among them of course — but by and large [they] met the centre in that consensus. And so that's why, again, this feels different in the Trump era to have him turning back, again, what most experts believe was actually a good arrangement with the Iranians."

Perry says abandoning this consensus will hurt America's reputation among allies.

"Now they feel that they've been left hanging and that they cannot trust the United States. And they cannot trust this president in foreign policy. And in these multilateral agreements that, again, were such part and parcel of the Cold War consensus of the United States' foreign policy from every moment after the end of World War II."

More to come

Perry says Trump's dismantling of Obama's policies isn't over. She says Trump has more work to do and that it will play to his base.

"I think at every opportunity, both in the foreign and domestic ground, he will take every possibility to overturn those positions of Barack Obama with which he disagrees, with which those who supported him disagree," she says.

Perry says some of Obama's legacy remains untouchable.

"I always point to the killing of Osama bin Laden," she says.  

But there's still much more Trump can do.

"Everything that can possibly be done, both in terms of process and politically, I think you will see Donald Trump attempting to do."

Donald Trump isn't the only president to roll back on his predecessor's policies. (Getty Images)

To hear the full interview with Barbara Perry, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.