Criticisms abound that President Donald Trump is systematically dismantling former President Barack Obama’s legacy.
He is not.
He is, however, dismantling a legacy of legislating from the Oval Office. And, without changing his trajectory, Trump will find his own executive governance facing the guillotine once his successor takes over.
After Trump withdrew the U.S. from the international nuclear deal with Iran last Tuesday, pundits wondered if this was the beginning of the end for Obama’s two-term achievements.
On its face, that idea has merit. After all, the deal with Iran was widely considered Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement, and it was wiped out with a simple speech from the White House. Additionally, the Trump administration has shrunk Obama’s Bears Ears National Monument designation, removed the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, backed away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and muddied the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The common thread running through these Obama-era successes, however, is the lack of bodies it took to approve them. These policies emerged from the executive branch without the full weight and deliberation of Congress.
Thus it comes as no surprise to see myriad actions overturned by a new president. Executive governing doesn’t have a long shelf life.
Executive orders are the worst form of legislation. They require neither votes nor debates. They often reflect the desires of a few and are too easy to revoke or modify — all it takes is a signature from the president.
Every president but one from George Washington to the current commander-in-chief has used some form of executive privilege to circumvent Congress. Both Republicans and Democrats have utilized executive orders in similar quantities. Their convenience is tempting, as they provide an easy way to quickly push an agenda should Congress languish in political squabbling.
But executive orders are best suited for more trivial matters, such as naming a bridge or designating a task force. Perhaps a crisis justifies their use, but prudence and wisdom should guide such a choice.
By contrast, the Constitution designates Congress as the entity “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” to propel the work of the nation. The reasons for this are clear: 535 members with a mandate to represent their constituents must form some sense of coalition to achieve any policy goals, and that requires both deliberation and collaboration. The long, slow process creates binding laws more suitable to the integrity of the country than the capricious nature of executive orders.
For the time being, Obama’s legacy remains intact. Trump hasn’t soiled his predecessor’s reputation as a powerful orator, who moved millions to cheer for change. If anything, Trump’s late-night rants have only enhanced the eloquence of the former president. Nor has Trump tarnished the symbolic representation Obama offered to minorities, reminding the nation that the color of one’s skin shouldn’t stop anyone from becoming a leader.
Nevertheless, the country shouldn’t be surprised to see crowning achievements made by executive order fall victim to the aims of a new administration.
A legacy is not built from a foundation of unilateral governance. Trump must remember that as he touts his own executive-order victories. Legacies don’t come by declaration; they are earned through leadership. Jump-starting a stalemated Congress to find proper solutions to immigration, health care and nuclear arms issues will make a lasting impact worthy of honor.