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 Monday night 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 underscored 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 as Tuesday dawned, he faced the reality that Mr. Obama’s most prominent domestic and international accomplishments both remained 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 he publicly called on Congress to simply repeal Mr. Obama’s health care program without trying to immediately pass a replacement.
“We will return!” Mr. Trump tweeted Tuesday morning about the collapse of his health care effort.
The latter notion seemed to die almost immediately on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, leaving the president to throw up his hands and say he would simply let Mr. Obama’s program die 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, it has largely been in cases 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.
But reversing the Iran and health care initiatives both require building support among other political players at home and abroad, a task for which Mr. Trump has yet to show much proclivity. At home in the worlds of real estate and entertainment, Mr. Trump is accustomed to giving orders and proclaiming, “You’re fired!” But the art-of-the-deal negotiating skills he boasted about on the campaign trail last year 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 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 strong critic of the nuclear deal, said time is on Iran’s side and Mr. Trump should find a way to convince 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, nor might it be 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 buy-America themes rather than health care.
Republicans on Capitol Hill expressed weariness of the health care debate and seemed ready to turn to other priorities, like cutting taxes. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, vowed to hold a vote to repeal Mr. Obama’s health care program without a replacement, but it was quickly clear there were not the votes for that. In the House, Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin on Tuesday focused on tax cuts, energy production and budget balancing.
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.