Obama’s Legacy Impacts the Battle Between Pragmatism and the Ideologues

Over the last couple of days, we’ve been hearing a lot about the battles that are going on inside the Trump White House. I suspect that a lot of that is being driven by individual egos playing power games for dominance (something Trump seems to relish). But there are policy issues at play as well.

Since the beginning of this administration, I’ve been keeping an eye on the battle between pragmatism and the ideologues. The president himself is incapable of pragmatism. He doesn’t care what works because his only concern is what creates the impression of a “win” for him personally. That is why the praise that is being heaped on him today about the military strikes in Syria could be dangerous. If it makes Trump feel like a winner — he will be inclined to repeat it.

The way this particular battle is surfacing is more about the the others who have an impact on policy. Within those ranks are the true ideologues, the inexperienced and the pragmatists (or those who want to appear to be pragmatic).

The ideologues came out of the gates swinging with things like the travel ban. But soon all the attention turned to repealing Obamacare. Among those involved were the ideologues who simply wanted to repeal the law and be done with it. The kind of pragmatism that kept Republicans from taking that action is the one where they needed to pretend to care about what would work to provide access and affordability in order to minimize the political consequences. That led to talk about a “repeal and delay” strategy. When that didn’t fly, they needed to come up with an actual replacement. As a result, we saw Obamacare Lite, that actually embraced the structure of ACA without any of the benefits. CBO blew a whole right through that one.

As people like Paul Krugman and Michael Grunwald have pointed out, we’re now witnessing something similar as work begins on another one of Trump’s promises — to re-negotiate NAFTA. What we are watching unfold is a process that mirrors what Obama tried to accomplish with TPP. It is not likely to work because the concessions Mexico and Canada were willing to make in TPP were predicated on an opening to the markets in Asia – which won’t be players in updating NAFTA. But the Trump administration has gone so far as to bring in one of the principal TPP negotiators to work on it – which has incited the rage of the ideologues at Breitbart.

Earlier today I noted that there are those in the Trump administration who are now proposing a strategy in Syria that duplicates exactly what the Obama administration was attempting to do. That isn’t because Rex Tillerson decided that he would simply mirror what his successor John Kerry was working on. It has more to do with the fact that any pragmatic approach to Syria is limited. In other words, it is a thorny problem with no easy answers. It’s clear that both Obama and Kerry struggled with that — and came up with an imperfect plan that is the best possible approach.

Even the ideologically oriented climate denier Scott Pruitt had to back down on challenging the basis for Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the Endangerment Rule, which declared that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases constitute a threat to human health and welfare. He knew that the science backs up the rule and that he would have almost no chance of getting it overturned in the courts. But without that, he will face countless legal battles in re-writing the Clean Power Plan.

These are some of the areas where Barack Obama’s embrace of pragmatism will play a role in protecting his legacy. Throughout his two terms I argued that, rather than try to place our 44th president on a left/right continuum, he was better described as a pragmatic progressive. Much more important to him than staking claim to an ideological position, he was interested in finding solutions that were politically feasible and would work. We’re now witnessing why that was important.

In the areas where the Trump administration doesn’t have to directly challenge science in the courts, engage in negotiations with other countries, or face a huge backlash from the American public, the ideologues are more likely to prevail. So while the resistance is doing what it can to fight back against the ICE deportation force and people of color will speak up against efforts to suppress voting rights and halt police reforms, unless a broad spectrum of white liberals join those efforts, I agree with Jonathan — the ideologues will prevail to hand Trump his most dangerous accomplishments.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.