Erasing Obama’s legacy may not be as easy as Trump thinks

The president-elect may not realise that the reality of overturning laws and policies will be far harder than his campaign soundbites suggested.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump prepares to speak at the Chairman's Global Dinner, addressing 150 diplomats and foreign ambassadors at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, January 17, 2017. Kevin Dietsch/Pool via Bloomberg

NEW YORK // When Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Friday, he is committed to rolling back broad swathes of Barack Obama's domestic and foreign policy, from ObamaCare to the Iran deal.
Some require no more than a flourish of a pen while others will take months or years of political wrangling.
It could all prove more complicated than the campaign sound bites suggested, according to Costas Panagopoulos, director of the Centre for Electoral Politics and Democracy at Fordham University in New York City.
"Once you get to the nitty gritty of creating or undoing public policies there are all sorts of consequences that may or may not have been thought through," he said. "These changes are not simply a return to a status quo, they create a new status quo that will have consequences for politics and for people's lives."
In press briefings, Mr Trump's aides said he could spend his first day overturning dozens of the more than 260 executive actions signed into law by Mr Obama, particularly those considered to impose a burden on businesses. That may include elements of Mr Obama's environmental legacy, including removing the US from the international Paris climate accord.
Foreign policy is another area where Mr Trump has signalled his intention to reverse course, starting with Mr Obama's signature Middle East policy.
"I'm not happy with the Iran deal, I think it's one of the worst deals ever made, I think it's one of the dumbest deals I've ever seen," Mr Trump told The Times at the weekend.
Under the agreement, most UN sanctions were lifted a year ago after Iran curtailed its nuclear activities and opened itself to inspections.
Renegotiating the deal for tougher terms — as Mr Trump said he wants to do — will be difficult. The new president would have to persuade Iran and the other four signatories to reopen talks, which they have indicated they would oppose. But he could unilaterally withdraw from the deal altogether.
But last week, James Mattis, the presumptive defence secretary told the senate confirmation hearing: "I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement — it's not a friendship treaty. But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies."
On the other hand, said Paul Fritz, associate professor of foreign policy at Hofstra University, the outcome may depend on who has the ear of the incoming president — the hawkish General Mike Flynn, presumptive national security adviser, or Gen Mattis.
"If the state department is frozen out and Mike Flynn is directing policy, which is a distinct possibility, I think Trump might be inclined to do more radical things," Mr Fritz said.
Syria is another area Mr Trump has singled out for change.
The Obama administration maintained that a sustainable peace is impossible so long as Bashar Al Assad remains in power. As a result, Washington has pushed for his removal and the CIA offered support, in the form of weapons, logistics and finances, to anti-government rebels in Syria.
Mr Trump has suggested he wants to stop that support. Instead, he has proposed aligning with Russia, Mr Assad's principal backer, against ISIL. He hints that he would ditch Mr Obama's policies and disregard the foreign policy establishment, because he has "an opposite view of many people regarding Syria" and voices concerns about differentiating moderates from extremists because "we have no idea " who the rebels are.
Hawks such as John McCain in the senate have voted through regulations that could allow the US to send portable surface-to-air missiles to Syrian rebels and guaranteed funding for the Pentagon's train and equip programme until 2018, in part to make it easier for Mr Trump to support the war against ISIL and against the Syrian government.
Whether he wants to ditch or pursue Mr Obama's will be up to the new president but allies such as the UK have privately reminded him that cosying up to Russia in Syria means also advancing Iran's interests in the region.
Mr Trump's intentions could become clearer next week when peace talks are held in Kazakhstan. Sponsors Turkey and Russia have invited the president-elect to send along a team. "We often think that presidents will radically change foreign policy, but when they assume office there is something that creates continuity — whether it's the bureaucracy, which is resistant to change, or the deeper understanding of what's at stake," said Mr Fritz. "I'm 50-50 whether that happens with Trump."
Things are more straightforward at home. Last year, Mr Obama announced he was raising the number of refugees allowed into the US to 110,000 in 2017 from 85,000 in 2016, to take account of the crisis in Syria. Mr Trump has repeatedly fuelled fears that terrorists could enter the country, Trojan-horse-style, by posing as asylum seekers. As president, he will have full authority to set his own limits as low as he wants.
In other areas, a Republican majority in both chambers of congress will prove helpful. The process to repeal the Affordable Care Act — better known as ObamaCare — has already begun. Republicans have launched a procedural gambit through the process of budget reconciliation, which allows them to strip away elements of the law that require federal funding.
The move still presents challenges. Some aspects of ObamaCare are popular, such as banning insurance companies from discriminating against patients with existing conditions, and helping 20 million Americans obtaining cover for the first time. But it has also led to increases in premiums of as much as 30 per cent this year.
As a result Mr Trump has promised to come up with an alternative, using competition across state lines and pressure on drug companies to drive down costs.
Everyone will be "beautifully covered" he told The Washington Post. He was not forthcoming about the finer points, but added, "It's very much formulated down to the final strokes. We haven't put it in quite yet but we're going to be doing it soon."