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Wrecking call: What Trump’s cabinet choices say about his plans for the Obama legacy

Image credit: Prachatai (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Since the election victory of Donald J. Trump, the President-elect has been hesitant to state that he plans to dismantle the policies, efforts and successes of the Obama administration, domestically and internationally. Trump has attempted to dial-back on previous statements of his plans to repeal Obamacare and has reportedly been in close consultation with President Obama to ensure a healthy transition of power. Regardless of whether this is just conforming to political customs, it’s been indicated that there’s the possibility that Trump may not be so quick to tear down the framework of the Obama presidency.

In contrast to this glimmer of bipartisan hope, Trump's appointments to his cabinet have reinforced the expectation that, in domestic and foreign policy, Trump will reduce Obama’s legacy to history.


One of the crowning achievements of Obama’s foreign policy agenda was the nuclear deal reached with the Iranian government, which lifted economic sanctions on Iran whilst preventing Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This deal was lauded as a diplomatic success in easing tensions between the US and Iran. Trump’s pick for Sectary of Defence, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis is known for having a particularly hawkish view of Iran. Despite being respected on both sides of the aisle, Mattis holds a deeply anti-Iran animus, once stating that Iran ‘remains the single most belligerent actor in the Middle-East’. His hawkish views on Tehran proved so much that Obama removed him as head of Central Command in 2013. His position in the Trump cabinet could prove to destabilise improved relations between Tehran and Washington.

Climate change

The US and China agreeing to ratify the Paris climate change deal in 2016 was a breakthrough moment in the Obama administration’s commitment to greenhouse gas reduction, as well as improving diplomacy with China. Trump’s pick for head of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt, the Attorney-General of Oklahoma, is a well-known climate change sceptic who has headed legal efforts to oppose greenhouse gas emissions restrictions on the gas and coal industry, such as the Obama’s Clean Power Plan. In his scepticism, Pruitt has claimed that ‘the debate is far from settled’ with respect to whether climate change is real and he has also been accused of having close connections to the fossil fuel industry. A man with such reckless beliefs on environmental protection leading the EPA could prove extremely damaging to Obama’s legacy on climate change.

Islamic terrorism

Despite terrorism increasing abroad and domestically during his presidency, Obama has responded to such events by utilising a careful use of language to avoid marginalising American Muslims or distorting public perception of the threat of terrorism. Obama has recognised that identifying ‘radical Islam’ as a threat risks alienating Muslim groups and inadvertently contributing to the growth of domestic terrorism. Incumbent National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn’s worldview of terrorism can be considered the antithesis of Obama’s. Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, has been outspoken in identifying the Muslim faith as one of the root causes of Islamic terrorism. He is convinced that Sharia Law is spreading within the US and that Islamism is a cancer within the body of all Muslims. Flynn’s troublingly conspiratorial comments on terrorism would be a direct refutation on Obama’s nuanced approach on this issue. What is more troubling is that Flynn will have Trump’s ear as his main advisor on national security.


Despite failed efforts to improve US-Russia relations, the Obama administration has largely viewed Putin as an adversary and a symbol of global instability since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Trump’s pick for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, has close ties with Putin due to his business dealings and was also given the ‘Order of Friendship’ by the Russian leader in 2013. Tillerson faces an uphill fight to be given senate confirmation, particularly in light of the CIA’s recent revelations that Kremlin-connected hacking undermined the US election and may well have swung the result in favour of Trump. There has been concern that Trump plans to align US foreign policy with Russia, which critics believe could have dire consequences for American hegemony, its political and national security, and global stability. Trump appointing a close colleague of Putin as its chief statesman indicates plans for a tectonic shift in US-Russia relations.

Immigration reform

One of the major policy goals of the Obama administration was immigration reform. Although it may be remembered by failed policy measures and as a mixed legacy, providing comprehensive immigration reform was a core goal for Obama. Trump’s proposed Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, a Senator from Alabama, is known for his staunch opposition to immigration. If Trump does attempt to actualise his campaign goal of ‘building a wall’, then Sessions – as the nation’s top law enforcement officer – would be his ideal candidate as leader of the Justice Department in enforcing anti-immigration policy.

Matthew Holding is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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