Sunday, January 3, 2010

In Defense of Obama

In response to my colleague's disapproval of Obama's handling of Health Care below, I would like to offer a counter argument. I think Obama, despite one glaring fault, has handled Health Care extremely well. Future presidents should learn from his approach. The problems that have hampered the bill-making process which Ragoth cites are not marks on Obama's record, but rather the results of the broader American political culture and structural facts about how our legislative institutions operate.

Obama's single greatest achievement in the Health Care debate is letting the legislature do its job on its terms. The Health Care bill is the single largest legislative undertaking since Medicare with so many constituencies, laws, regulations, and potential strategies that it is simply impossible for a single person to be completely satisfied with the bill. The political capital being spent, burned, and built is incomprehensible. Had Obama come out with his own piece of legislation, it would have crashed as miserably and dishearteningly as the Clinton bill. Not only do we have the Clinton example to look to as a comparative, but also the string of failed Bush legislative projects like immigration and social security reform. The Bush administration's series of legislative failures is a great example of what happens when the executive takes too much initiative in the legislative process.

So, rather than write the bill himself (excuse my artistic reification), he outlined specific, largely inflexible, and sound goals for the bill. The shortcomings of how the bills have come out were not his choices. They are the results of the legislative process driven by the relationship between the party machines, polity, and interest groups. Republicans will not vote for the bill period, despite the fact that much of their bill (most prominenty, the exchanges) will end up in the final bill. There are too many new Democrats in vulnerable districts and moderate Democrats to take full advantage of the Democratic supermajority. So, a big public option or single-payer system is simply politically infeasable. We will have to wait for health care to implode before the American political conscious is ready for such a radical market restructuring.

What Obama has done wrong is not spend his own political capital to better shape the legislative process. To be sure, he has pushed his weight around in the many private meetings he's held throughout this process. That may be why the bill will be deficit neutral, cost-cutting, and ultimately politically feasible. However, he has not publicly pushed specifics in the initiative to the point of having any piece of the bill put in his name (though Glen Beck would have you believe otherwise). For example, he could very well have personally owned the public option, stumped for it in a national campaign, and gave up other items (such as the abortion payment rules) to persuade the remaining moderate Democrats and secure the filibuster-proof majority. In this view, Obama is guilty by omission. However, this is hardly the ownership that detractors and critics attribute to the President (still love saying that).

To extend this out to the rest of Obama's presidency and wrap up my defense, I believe this is a great sign of exactly the kind of success Obama will have throughout the rest of his terms. While Republicans will never vote "yes" on any liberal issue (i.e. immigrant citizenship, carbon emissions regulation, recession spending), their party infrastructure, ideological puritanism, and general detachment from the majority of Americans will insulate Obama's legislative goals from strong Republican interference. Yes, some Democrats will probably lose their seats in the next elections, but Republicans will not be able to legitimately claim a mandate within the next four years. Think the "Anyone but Bush" sloganeering.

This will enable Obama to continue to work his guiding, but hands-off approach to the upcoming, major initiatives that he put forward in his campaign. Unless Obama changes tactics; environmental, government spending, immigration, and other monumental legislative undertakings will follow the same trajectory. No one will be fully satisfied, but we will witness major advances in government policy. If Obama learns from Health Care and Democrats maintain their majority or miraculously expand their electoral success, we could see the most effective and long-lasting solutions to modern social problems in our life times. They won't be silver bullets as Health Care has well-demonstrated, but they will be leaps talked about in terms of "light years." Obama's greatest contribution then will be the exemplary leadership that guides without doing everything himself.

1 comment:

Ragoth said...

While I tend to agree with parts of your overall analysis, I have a few specific points of contention, which I think bridge the gap between my critique and your defense.

I do certainly agree that this is a large and important issue, and that Obama's claimed approach of "hands-off" is refreshing and a major improvement in executive process. However, I would disagree that the outcome of Obama's meetings and guidance, where it has occurred, has had only the effects of being deficit-neutral, cost-cutting, and politically feasible. I think another result of these meetings, and meetings that members of his staff have had with members of Congress, especially in the Senate, has been to say "Compromise to whatever Lieberman/Baucus/Nelson wants." I think that there is a divide here between principled action and practicality. I think that, at least in part, Obama wants to maintain his principles of bipartisanship and reaching across the aisle. He wants to avoid, at all costs, the use of measures such as reconciliation. The problem, however, is a matter of practicality. It became increasingly clear that going the principled route would not win out. It is likely as you say, it will take the utter implosion of our health care system to effect a significant change in political will on this issue. Beyond that, as you also note, no Republican is ever going to vote yes on this bill. They have said as much - even if the bill was compromised with everything that they wanted, they still would not vote for it. Likewise for the blue-dog Democrats, they could be moved, but it would require eliminating everything that really could be called strong reform from the bill.

In such a case, if Obama really considered health care reform to be one of the most important issues of our times...well, I suppose if it were me I would have said that for the principle of helping the American people, I would loosen the principle of bipartisanship - if they're never going to give me a vote, no matter what I do, there isn't much point in bowing to them.

I will also agree fully with your point about the inability of the Democrats to use their supermajority. There are too many new Democrats and too many moderates - it's the Big Tent party and there isn't a hell of a lot of unity. The problem I see, however, is that it seems that when the Republicans have control (and not even a supermajority) get almost everything they want. When the Democrats are in power, the Republicans still get a hell of a lot of what they want, and very few "liberal" or "progressive" agendas make it very far. This doesn't mean that we never get anything - far from it, but it seems that even when the Democrats are the majority, or supermajority, the Republicans have an undue percentage of control.

So, yes, I will fully concede that the blame for this is not to be laid solely at Obama's feet. I still maintain, however, that I am disappointed in the role which has played in the whole affair - either his lack of spending political capital, or when he has does so, to push for eliminating strong reform measures from the bill.

Overall, however, I'm more disappointed with the way the Senate bill turned out and how it now stands that the House will likely cave towards the Senate bill. As I said before, over the decades, it seems like every time reform is proposed for healthcare, it is weaker than the previous effort, is defeated, and then takes years to resurface. It seems like we are slowly spiraling towards an implosion, and I would prefer very much to avoid that.

I would love to continue this conversation in person if you're free for lunch sometime.