WASHINGTON — President Trump’s demolition project just got shut down, at least for now.
Determined to dismantle his predecessor’s legacy, Mr. Trump in the space of a couple of hours this week reluctantly agreed to preserve President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and failed in his effort to repeal Mr. Obama’s health care program.
The back-to-back events highlighted the challenge for a career developer whose main goal since taking office six months ago has been to raze what he sees as the poorly constructed edifices he inherited. Mr. Trump has gone a long way toward that objective through executive action, but now faces the reality that Mr. Obama’s most prominent domestic and international accomplishments remain intact.
In neither case has Mr. Trump given up. He instructed his national security team to keep rethinking the approach to Iran with a view toward either revising or scrapping the nuclear agreement. And by the end of the day he was vowing to let Mr. Obama’s health care program collapse.
“We will return!” Mr. Trump tweeted Tuesday morning about the collapse of his health care effort.
Yet there is little appetite among the United States’ partners to revisit the Iran deal, nor is there much eagerness among lawmakers to cancel the existing health care program without a new system to install in its stead.
The latter notion seemed to die almost immediately on Tuesday on Capitol Hill, leaving the president to throw up his hands and say he would simply let Mr. Obama’s program collapse of its own weight. “I’m not going to own it,” he told reporters. “I can tell you the Republicans are not going to own it. We’ll let Obamacare fail, and then the Democrats are going to come to us.”
Nearly every president arrives in office promising a new direction, especially those succeeding someone from the other party. But few, if any, have spent as much of their early months focused on undoing what the last president did rather than promoting their own proactive ideas as Mr. Trump has.
Where the president has succeeded so far in reversing the Obama legacy, it has largely been on issues where he could act on his own authority. He approved the Keystone XL pipeline that Mr. Obama had rejected. He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the Paris climate change accord that his predecessor had negotiated. And he began repealing environmental and business regulations that were imposed during the last administration.
By contrast, he has made little headway on other central promises made during last year’s campaign. He has not made significant progress in building a wall along the southern border, much less persuading Mexico to pay for it. His plans to overhaul the tax code and rebuild America’s roads and bridges remain at the starting gate. He has not gotten Congress to repeal the Dodd-Frank regulations imposed on Wall Street after the 2008 financial crash.
Like reversing the Iran and health care initiatives, those promises require building support among other political players at home and abroad, a task for which Mr. Trump has yet to show much proclivity. During a lifetime spent in the worlds of real estate and entertainment, Mr. Trump grew accustomed to giving orders and proclaiming, “You’re fired!” But the art-of-the-deal negotiating skills he boasted about last year on the campaign trail have not closed the deal with fellow world leaders or with fellow Republicans.
“The problem in Washington, besides every piece of legislation having its own special interest group, is that bills are purposely written to be complicated,” said Michael Dubke, who briefly served as White House communications director under Mr. Trump. “And complicated is hard to unwind.”
Mr. Trump could, of course, simply abandon the Iran deal as he did with the trade and climate agreements, and he may yet. But while that may be satisfying, he has been told by advisers that the United States would find it harder to pressure the clerical leadership in Tehran without allies, and so he has not risked alienating them with a unilateral move.
John R. Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations and a strong critic of the nuclear deal, said time is on Iran’s side and Mr. Trump should find a way to persuade the allies. “We need to explain this to the Europeans,” he said. “They may find it hard to accept, but plain speaking is still an American virtue, occasionally even in diplomacy.”
As for health care, Mr. Trump chastised Democrats on Tuesday for not going along — “Dems totally obstruct,” he tweeted — but he made no serious effort to reach out to them during the months he has targeted Mr. Obama’s health care program, nor would it have been realistic to expect them to join a drive to repeal what they consider to be one of their proudest achievements. While he did lobby Republicans, some said he did not make a serious enough effort to do so. The White House devoted its public message this week to made-in-America themes rather than health care.
Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday that lawmakers should either repeal Mr. Obama’s program outright or return to the legislation that has now failed. “Either way, inaction is not an option,” he said in a speech to members of the National Retail Federation in Washington. “Congress needs to step up. Congress needs to do their job, and Congress needs to do their job now.”
For Mr. Trump, the failure seemed to compound the problems of a presidency that has been dominated by Twitter-fueled controversies and investigations into contacts with Russia during and after last year’s election that have left him with the support of just 36 percent of the public, the lowest of any president at this point in seven decades.
But Mr. Trump can point to record-setting stock markets, continuing job growth and gains against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. His business supporters are more focused on taxes than health care. And many of his supporters may appreciate that he has been fighting for them and blame the entrenched system they already loathe.
The White House quickly moved to fault Democrats for the failure of the health care drive. “They’re responsible for passing Obamacare,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president’s spokeswoman. “They’re responsible for creating the mess that we’re in. They’re responsible for being unwilling to work with Republicans in any capacity to help fix a system that they know is completely flawed and have publicly said so. I think that it’s pretty clear, and I think the responsibility lies on their shoulders.”
Democrats scoffed at that, noting that Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. Unlike Mr. Obama, who made an effort to reach out to Republicans at the start of his own health care drive in 2009, albeit unsuccessfully, they said, Mr. Trump never made a pretense of trying, as was made clear from the start when Senate Republicans decided to advance the legislation using rules that required only a simple majority.
Phil Schiliro, who as Mr. Obama’s top legislative adviser helped push through the health care bill in 2010, said the real problem for the Republicans was that they could never overcome the idea that their legislation would take away health care for many people or explain how it would be better.
“There are real-world consequences to legislation,” he said. “It’s not abstract. There are severely disabled kids who will lose their care and millions of people who will lose their insurance. That’s a hard sell to members.”
By Tuesday, Republicans on Capitol Hill expressed weariness of the health care debate and seemed ready to turn to other priorities, like cutting taxes. At the White House, that Rose Garden rally where Mr. Trump prematurely celebrated the passage of a health care bill in the House before it had gone to the Senate now seems long ago.
Mr. Trump has been left to contemplate his next move. He could try to find another way to get the bulldozer to work. Or he could move on to another property.