POLITICS
07/27/2016 01:58 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2016

Obama's Speech Wednesday Is About More Than Electing Hillary Clinton

It's also about defending his own legacy.

PHILADELPHIA ― Barack Obama has said on many occasions that he wants his presidency to leave the kind of mark on America that Ronald Reagan’s did.

As far back as early 2008, before Obama was even his party’s nominee, he described Reagan as a “transformational” figure ― somebody whose impact on policy and politics endured for many decades. Obama hoped to do the same thing, except by pushing the country in a more liberal direction rather than a more conservative one.

Obama is on his way to achieving that. By any reasonable standard, he has been the most successful Democratic president in a generation, and maybe for longer than that. He has signed into law more pieces of meaningful progressive legislation than any president since Lyndon Johnson ― and he did so without the benefit of Johnson’s huge congressional majorities, and without the stain of something like Vietnam on his legacy.

But Reagan, Johnson, FDR ― they enacted policy changes that outlasted their tenures and, in so doing, they helped change public expectations about what government should or shouldn’t do.

If Obama wants to join the ranks of those lofty predecessors, he must complete one final task. He has to make sure that Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, becomes president ― an effort that begins in earnest when Obama speaks at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night.

To be clear, Obama has already changed America in ways that even many of his supporters don’t fully appreciate.  

The Recovery Act didn’t simply help the country pull out of the Great Recession. It also made key investments, particularly in renewable energy, that could make the country more prosperous ― and less dependent on fossil fuels ― decades from now.

The rescue of General Motors and Chrysler didn’t simply spare the Midwest even worse economic pain. It preserved a vital supply chain and repositioned the auto industry to compete throughout the rest of the 21st century.

The Affordable Care Act didn’t simply make it possible for an additional 20 million people to get health insurance. It also ended insurance company practices that made coverage unavailable to people with serious medical problems ― and created the expectation that nobody should go without insurance because they are too poor to pay for it.

New rules for Wall Street, new limits on power plant emissions ― these and other policy initiatives were full of compromises and design flaws, and in many cases remain unpopular or at least highly controversial. Conservative critics can cite chapter and verse on why these policies have made America a worse place, just as liberal critics made such arguments about Reagan’s changes. But the impact of these policies is impossible to miss. 

How long the impact will last, however, is another question entirely. If Republicans remain in charge of Congress after this election, they will do whatever they can to tear down Obama’s accomplishments. And if Donald Trump is president, he will probably sign most of what the Republican Congress passes. His choice of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, former leader of the House Republican Study Conference and one of the most conservative vice presidential nominees in recent memory, is a pretty clear sign of that.

No, Republicans wouldn’t be able to reverse all of Obama’s achievements, no matter how hard they might try. The energy economy has changed so much that alternative energy is on secure footing, with the business community committed to its development. Taking health insurance away from millions of Americans would prove politically perilous and likely invite a massive electoral rebuke.

Just look at Kentucky, where Matt Bevin, the newly elected Republican governor, has backed way off from promises to end the state’s participation in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. That’s a sign of enduring political change.

But if Republicans couldn’t wipe away Obama’s policy changes altogether, they could diminish or undermine many of them. If Trump becomes president and Republicans hold on to Congress, two events that would likely go hand in hand, it’s a safe bet the GOP would slash spending and regulations ― doing serious damage not just to the Affordable Care Act, but also to Obama’s rules on emissions and the financial community.

Republicans might even be willing to endure an immediate electoral backlash for making these changes, just as Democrats sometimes are, because they believe so strongly in what they are doing.

Come November, Obama’s name won’t be on the ballot. But his legacy will be at stake. And Wednesday’s speech represents one of his best chances to defend it.

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