As he raced across the country before the election, President Obamawarned supporters about the stakes. “All the progress we’ve made over these last eight years,” he said, “goes out the window if we don’t win this election.”
Hillary Clinton, his anointed successor, did not win, and so now Mr. Obama will find out whether his prediction was just campaign hyperbole or if his legacy really has just gone out the window. Not only are specific initiatives like his health care and climate change programs at risk, but so, too, is the broader vision Mr. Obama articulated for America.
Suddenly, the progressive, post-racial, bridge-building society he promised has given way to an angry, jeering, us-against-them nation to be led by a new president who relishes reality-show name-calling with racial overtones. In none of Mr. Obama’s worst-case scenarios when he came to office was this the way he imagined leaving.
Since the electoral earthquake that made Donald J. Trump his designated successor, Mr. Obama has consoled his team — and himself — by telling them that they moved the country forward despite this obvious setback. Change does not follow a straight line, he told crying aides. Instead, it tends to zig and zag.
But Mr. Obama’s place in history looks considerably different than a week ago. The transformation he envisioned may not survive his administration. He is leaving near the peak of his popularity, yet many of the voters who made Mr. Obama the nation’s first black president chose to replace him with a man who had peddled racially incendiary suggestions that he might not have been born in this country.
In some ways, this follows a pattern: Americans grow weary of incumbent presidents and often pick successors perceived to be the opposite. John F. Kennedy was the vigorous young antidote to the aging Dwight D. Eisenhower. The cerebral Mr. Obama was the antithesis of the bring-‘em-on George W. Bush.
“My operative theory of presidential succession is people always choose the remedy to what they have; they never choose the replica — even when the incumbent is popular,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s longtime strategist.
Given that, aides argued that Mr. Trump’s election should not be viewed as a referendum on the president. “It was not a rejection of Obama or Obama-ism,” said Dan Pfeiffer, another former senior adviser. “It was probably more about the two candidates running in this election.”
Critics said there was no way to look at it as anything but a rebuff. “The election outcome is a clear repudiation of President Obama, his policies, his vision, how those policies will be implemented,” said Eric Cantor, the former House Republican majority leader. “And frankly, I think it reflects the fact that most Americans think he failed.”
Jay Winik, a historian who has studied presidents of the Civil War and World War II eras, said Mr. Obama would be remembered for helping the country move further beyond the ugly legacy of slavery and racism. “That said, it is hard not to think, from a historian’s point of view, Trump’s election changes our perspective on President Obama and his impact on the country, knocking him down a few pegs,” he said. “A huge swath of American people were hurting, the so-called forgotten American, and President Obama failed them.”
Mr. Obama could take solace from the fact that most Americans approve of his handling of the job in polls and more Americans voted for Mrs. Clinton than Mr. Trump, despite the Electoral College. Aides even interpreted the results as a validation of sorts for Mr. Obama, because Mr. Trump stood as the candidate of change, just as he had, albeit change of a different sort.
Indeed, Mr. Trump’s election imperils many of Mr. Obama policies, notably the health care law that has extended coverage to 20 million Americans but aggravated others who resented government intrusion and rising premiums. Mr. Trump has promised to scrap Mr. Obama’sinternational climate change agreement and Trans-Pacific Partnershiptrade pact, renegotiate his Iran nuclear deal, dismantle Dodd-Frankregulations on Wall Street and reverse orders sparing millions of illegal immigrants from deportation.
But bold campaign rhetoric does not always translate into such clear-cut action. For instance, Mr. Eisenhower denounced Harry S. Truman’s foreign policy, only to largely adopt it after taking over. Along similar lines, Richard M. Nixon did not scrap Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, and Mr. Obama ultimately preserved much of Mr. Bush’s counterterrorism program.
Mr. Obama’s team hopes Mr. Trump finds it harder to shift course than he expected. Taking health care away from millions of Americans might prove problematic, Mr. Obama’s advisers said. In recent days, Mr. Trump has said he will keep elements of the program and find a way to ensure that Americans do not lose coverage.
Moreover, although Mr. Obama said that all of his progress would go “out the window,” advisers now argue the opposite: that many accomplishments cannot be overturned. He will be remembered, they said, for pulling the country out of the Great Recession, saving the auto industry, bringing home most troops fighting overseas, killing Osama bin Laden, enacting higher fuel efficiency standards and restoring relations with Cuba.
Still, after two midterm defeats, this was the third time since taking office that voters rejected Mr. Obama’s advice. He campaigned all outfor Mrs. Clinton as no departing incumbent has in modern times, only to relearn the lesson that presidents cannot transfer popularity.
And there is no getting around the fact that Mr. Trump’s America is not Mr. Obama’s. He has said one of his biggest disappointments was failing to heal the country’s divisions. Polarization now seems worse than before.
Mr. Obama accepts only so much responsibility for that, faulting Republican obstructionism. He points to his early days in office, when he was heading to Capitol Hill to discuss the economic crisis only to hear that RepresentativeJohn A. Boehner, the top House Republican, had already rejected the new president’s stimulus package out of hand.
“When I think about the polarization that occurred in 2009 and 2010, I’ve gone back and I’ve looked at my proposals and my speeches and the steps we took to reach out to Congress,” he told the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in a pre-election conversation published by Vanity Fair. “And the notion that we weren’t engaging Congress or that we were overly partisan or we didn’t schmooze enough, or we didn’t reach out enough to Republicans — that whole narrative just isn’t true.”
Instead, he has pointed to Republican radicalization. “I see a straight line from the announcement of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee to what we see today in Donald Trump, the emergence of the Freedom Caucus, the Tea Party and the shift in the center of gravity for the Republican Party,” he told Jonathan Chait of New York magazine this fall.
Republicans, unsurprisingly, reject that narrative. Mr. Cantor, then Mr. Boehner’s No. 2, cited a now-famous White House meeting in those early days. In it, Mr. Cantor suggested his own economic measures only to be dismissed. “Eric, elections have consequences and I won,” he recalled the president saying.
“That was really the tenor of Obama’s Washington,” Mr. Cantor said. “It was much different from what the people heard him say on the trail. It was never really the vision that people were led to believe.”
Mr. Cantor himself embodied the risks for Republicans perceived to be cooperating with Mr. Obama when he was ousted in a 2014 primary for not being conservative enough.
Mr. Obama does not talk publicly about the role of race in the opposition to him, but it is cited by many of his supporters. Republican intransigence must be explained at least in part by race, they figure — a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the first African-American president.
Yet lock-step opposition to Mr. Obama can also be explained by other factors, including political calculation and authentic philosophical disagreement. Mr. Obama’s opponents contend that he cites race to explain away valid criticism. His more virulent foes maintain that Mr. Obama is the one who fueled racial division.
Either way, Mr. Obama did not fully see the emerging threat. He dismissed Mr. Trump as a carnival barker and, like many in Washington, did not understand that much of the country was alienated enough to embrace such a figure.
To the president, Mr. Trump was a source of deep irritation for the racially charged accusation that he was not actually born in America. At the White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2011, Mr. Obama took revenge on Mr. Trump, mocking him and his reality show. (“You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night.”)
In talks beforehand, aides recalled no debate about going after Mr. Trump. He was, Mr. Axelrod said, “low-hanging fruit” for Mr. Obama. “I guarantee you that as he delivered those jokes he did not think he was roasting his successor,” he said. “I don’t think that would have remotely crossed his mind.”
David Litt, a former speechwriter for Mr. Obama, remembered thinking that evening that Mr. Trump had been destroyed politically, rendered a laughingstock. “That’s the end of Donald Trump,” he said he thought. Now the laughingstock holds the fate of Mr. Obama’s legacy in his hands.
“I think President Obama will still go down in history as a great and historic president,” Mr. Litt said. “But a lot of his accomplishments are going to be limited by what happened on Tuesday. There’s no getting around that.”