Archive for December 16th, 2009

Obama’s Rhetoric and Reality

President Obama’s job approval ratings have been slipping, driven in large part by dissatisfaction from the Left.   As the public option fades from the health care bill, financial reforms seem meager and geared towards the interest of big business, and the change promised in the campaign seems to become “more of the same,” those who were inspired by candidate Obama find themselves underwhelmed by President Obama.   What’s happened?

Part of it is simply the economy.  As unemployment climbs over 10% and people worry about debt and deficits, it’s only natural they’ll blame the President.   Obama inherited this crisis, but that doesn’t matter — he’s the guy at the top now.   The big problem he faces with those who supported him is that he campaigned on rhetoric that is simply impossible to fulfill.   Our system is geared to slow change, and the influence of special interests on Congress is something that no President can overcome.

Senator Lieberman is a very good friend of the insurance industry, for instance.   So are other Senators.   So when the lobbyists call and implicitly promise campaign contributions and support for those who help their business — often businesses in states represented by various Senators — they have clout.   Given the filibuster rule which allows 40 Senators to block legislation if they choose (and for the last decade that rule has been increasingly abused, in my opinion), it becomes nearly impossible to pass any significant legislation that steps on the toes of powerful interest groups in the US.    Since the President wants to get something…ANYTHING…he’s forced to compromise to the point that his own supporters become sour on the end result.

The President could try reconciliation, a process that only needs 51 votes, but that move prevents a lot of key reforms that aren’t related to the budget, especially important reforms to the insurance industry.  It would be very messy, and probably end up taking even more time.   Moreover, side issues can impede the process.   Pro-life politicians demand that the new system not pay for abortions.   And they have enough votes to force yet another compromise, again angering Obama’s core constituency.   Obama, more a pragmatist than revolutionary (those who called him socialist and saw him as some radical leftist should at least feel relieved), goes along with it, much to the chagrin of his core supporters.

To those who don’t like the result, don’t blame Obama or the Democratic leadership.   This is how American politics works.   Even the heavy compromises that cause liberal Democrats to sour on the health bill would not have been enough to pass reform if it wasn’t for the large Democratic majorities in each house.   The American system is geared towards incremental and slow change.    The Republicans have also been using effective fear tactics to wear down public opinion, prompting an angry outburst from Senator Franken who bluntly (and accurately) accused some GOP Senators (in particular Sen. Thune of South Dakota) of lying.

Incremental change also means that change continues.   Once a bill passes, a major new health care system will be in place.  It won’t go away.  If it fails to save money or protect patient rights, there will be pressure to reform it.  Over the years it will morph into something different.  If nothing is passed, the process of change does not begin.  If a flawed bill is passed, the first steps will have been taken.   Politics is the art of the possible, and this is all that is possible.

Obama is showing himself to be a pragmatic and cautious politician.  After the last eight years, that is a breath of fresh air.  That isn’t in accord with the rhetoric of change that he ran on, inspiring hope that the new President could somehow change politics in Washington and dramatically alter the course of political events.   That rhetoric has met the reality of vested political interests, lobbyists and others in Washington who control the way the game is played.   While Americans left and right buy into the fiction that the President is “the most powerful man in the world,” the reality is that the President is constrained by powerful actors with influence in Congress, the bureaucracy, the media, and the economy.

President Clinton learned this lesson in 1994, and saved his Presidency by deciding not to fight — he got on board with the special interests.   Clinton went from being an agent of change to become a cautious, even a conservative President.    Will Obama beat the same path?

Liberals on the left fear he will.   Obama inspired hope for change, but confronted with the powerful interests of the status quo, he seems to be making a deal with the devil — he’ll play by the rules if they  help make his Presidency go smoothly.   The watered down health bill, they believe, is evidence.  Obama didn’t campaign across the country and fight for real reform, something many on the left believe could have made a difference.

There is another alternative.   With almost all the GOP dead set against change, power inevitably sat in the hands of Senators like Lieberman, Nelson, and Snowe.   Nothing Obama could have done nationally would have altered their approach — and he would have set himself up for a humiliating defeat.   You only go to war if you know you’ll win, and Obama certainly knew that radical health care reform was a gamble.  It could be that instead of playing poker, where you gamble big to win or lose big, Obama’s playing chess.   Get something passed — even if it is flawed.   Think three moves ahead.    Think of how the system can be tweaked, how to react when something doesn’t work, master the “art of the possible.”   In that case progressives should hold their nose and support reform, recognizing that it creates a new infrastructure unlikely to go away, and does significantly protect consumers from insurance companies.

People expect and want sudden and dramatic change.   But that’s not how the world works, especially not the Senate.   Obama’s rhetoric was lofty and inspirational, his governing style is pragmatic and patient.   On climate change, health care, and economic policy he’s passing what he can pass, which taken together is a pretty full plate of initiatives.  Obama is accomplishing more than most Presidents in his first year, setting up the opportunity to build on these changes moving forward.

Like it or not, the vested interests in Washington hold real power, and cannot be pushed aside with populist rhetoric.   By working with them, it appears to many that they are co-opting Obama.   If Obama plays his chess right, he might actually be co-opting them.