One way of understanding American history is as a struggle between consequential Presidents who expand liberty and consequential Presidents who expand the state. On this view, most Presidents are frankly not all that important: their decisions are marginal and many are reversed or substantially modified.
If so, Donald Trump’s victory had an important benefit for liberty, even if he himself is no classical liberal, because it prevented Barack Obama from being a consequential President on the statist side of the ledger. If one looks at the list of Presidents generally regarded by historians as great or near great, all except three had this in common: They were Presidents elected to two terms who were succeeded by a President of their own party who tried to build on their achievements. Presidents of this kind include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
Theodore Roosevelt is not much of an exception. He served almost two terms followed by the Republican William Howard Taft. Woodrow Wilson makes the list, in no small measure because he inaugurated one of the most important modern political movements—progressivism—that lived long after he died. And James Polk served only one term but almost everything he did, like the annexation of Texas, was so popular that this Whig successor did not dare reverse it.
President Obama will not be succeeded by Hillary Clinton. As a result, almost his entire domestic policy is at risk– from Obamacare to heavy environmental and banking regulation and, given the people Trump is considering appointing to the cabinet, these risks seem likely be realized. Our current President will be remembered and rightly so as the first African American to be elected to the highest office in the land, but he is now unlikely to go down in the lists of the great or near great. And that is important, because his attaining greatness would add to the already large list of Presidents who have moved the United States decisively and enduringly in the statist direction. The only one in the last hundred and twenty years that has moved us decisively and enduringly toward liberty is Ronald Reagan.
One might worry that one of Obama’s most illiberal legacies could nevertheless prove attractive to President Trump, as to any President—his expansive use of executive power. Fortunately, the majority leader of the House, Kevin McCarthy, recently said that Congress intends to begin the next session by passing legislation to constrain executive discretion. Perhaps the most important of such legislation is the REINS Act, which requires Congress actually to enact expensive new regulations recommended by agencies before they can become law.
But other legislation constraining executive power should be considered as well. Sometimes a President who fails to attain greatness creates a backlash that gives momentum to his opponents to move in the opposite direction. In a subsequent post, I will offer some liberty expanding legislation that might surf in on the wave that is washing away President Obama’s legacy.