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.

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  1. #1 by classicliberal2 on December 17, 2009 - 04:01

    “(those who called him socialist and saw him as some radical leftist should at least feel relieved)”

    They won’t, nor will they stop calling him a “socialist,” because those who hold to such views are, to put it bluntly, mindless robots whose views are programmed by Fox News, right-wing talk radio, and so on, rather than the product of anything that happens in the real world.

    “Obama is showing himself to be a pragmatic and cautious politician. After the last eight years, that is a breath of fresh air.”

    No, it’s the antics of a fool who thinks breathing in the same polluted air while trying to pollute it a little less than the last guy is “progress.” It isn’t. Fresh air is what was needed. Obama’s “pragmatism” leads him to repeatedly “compromise” with a phantom. You can only compromise with someone willing to do the same, and, in the contemporary political scene, the actual opposition is unwilling to compromise on anything. So Obama just gives away the store right up front, and neither demands nor receives anything in exchange.

    “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.”

    Clinton was always a conservative president. That’s all he ever was, and all he’d been as governor before that. He spent 8 entirely forgettable years liberally peppering the hindquarters of the right with affectionate kisses (the only thing he ever did liberally) and, for his chapped lips, got back only a mega-million smear campaign and the impeachment fiasco (which is the only thing for which he will be remembered).

    “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.'”

    No, there’s no grand chess game or master scheme involved. The real, on-the-ground narrative is the one we’ve actually seen: Obama was purchased by the health care industry. He gave up on all the real reform elements–he was ready to throw the public option over the side almost immediately, just as he’d thrown single payer over the side before the debate even began–then sat on his hands and let the moneyed interests pick apart the bill until there was nothing left worth passing. To toot my own horn a bit, you can go back and read my own blog entries from before the Obama administration even began and find that I predicted most of this so accurately that I may as well change the name of it to the Nostradamus Blog.

    “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.”

    It does NOT protect consumers, significantly or otherwise. It forces them to buy for-profit private health insurance, while allowing the insurance companies to charge whatever they want. The reason so many people don’t have insurance NOW is because it’s too expensive. Imagine what it’s going to be when the insurance companies are no longer allowed to use “pre-existing conditions,” recision, and all of the other damnable means by which they’ve protected their profits? Premiums will soar, and people will still be forced into buying by the government. It makes EVERYTHING worse than it is now–FAR worse. It establishes NOTHING that can be built upon–it merely artificially props up a failed industry that has collapsed and is bleeding us dry as it dies.

    Howard Dean has been the unremitting cheerleader for health care reform from the beginning. He’s stayed with it and acted as Obama’s pimp through all the betrayals, all the watering down, all the kowtowing to Olympia Snowe and to Joe Lieberman. Dean is a physician, a successful governor, and, as head of the DNC, shepherded Obama and the huge Democratic majority in congress into office. Yesterday, Dean finally said “enough is enough,” and came out against the current bill. He urges the other liberals to do the same, saying bluntly (and correctly) that what is being proposed “isn’t health care reform.” It’s just another right-wing handout to corporate America. Dean says scrap the whole thing, and start over from scratch. He’s right.

    Opposition to the bill has been rising steadily as the liberals abandon it (and the polling does show that they’re the source of the rising opposition), and it’s beginning to look like a no-win situation for those who would have to vote for it. Think of how this plays out for them: they lose both the liberals and the conservatives–basically everyone. And because it’s such an awful bill, and will make things so much worse for almost everyone (and it will), they’re going to get killed at the polls. And then, they’re going to have to come back and go through it all over again, because things will be so much worse. On the plus side is only the hope–a “maybe”–that they’ll get a lot of health care industry bucks.

    I want to see it die, and I think the politics are right for it.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on December 17, 2009 - 04:07

      I hope you are wrong. You may be right. It seems to me that getting something passed that can be altered as time goes on is superior to health care reform dying completely. The fact is that the kind of system you and I would want (and I think we both are on the same page in terms of what would be best) can’t be passed. Even if the Senate used reconciliation, the House would have trouble passing it. My wife is a CPA and works for a hospital. She shares your misgivings and is also deeply disappointed — and she knows the health care industry. Maybe my idea that Obama is playing chess is just wishful thinking. But given the political realities, this seems to be all that is possible. If it dies, what are the political consequences?

      • #3 by classicliberal2 on December 17, 2009 - 08:35

        “I hope you are wrong.”

        I WISH I was wrong. I’m not.

        “You may be right.”

        I am.

        “It seems to me that getting something passed that can be altered as time goes on is superior to health care reform dying completely.”

        You’re operating under the false impression that reform hasn’t ALREADY died. It has. What’s left makes things worse, and we’re better off without it. Far better off. It isn’t even a close call, and, given how bad things are now, that’s about as damning a comment as one could offer.

        “The fact is that the kind of system you and I would want (and I think we both are on the same page in terms of what would be best) can’t be passed.”

        I disagree with that. It couldn’t be passed right now. A transitional form of it could have been passed back when this all began. There’s a reason the Republicans, who oppose all reform, have adopted a delay, delay, delay approach; the longer they’re able to delay passage, the more time they and the corporate propaganda machine have to poison the public on whatever may be proposed.

        (Even today, when Bernie Sanders offered a single-payer amendment, Tom “Payola” Coburn came to the Senate floor to object to the traditional dispensing of the reading of the bill, and made the clerk spend more than 3 hours reading the whole thing, while he immediately left the chamber.)

        “Even if the Senate used reconciliation, the House would have trouble passing it.”

        Reconciliation couldn’t be used to pass a new program, but it could be used for an expansion of Medicare, which is what the single-payer proposal is. Unfortunately, this is another area where Demos have shown themselves to be completely spineless; Republicans used reconciliation for this sort of thing all the time when they ran congress. They threw out, for example, the versions of the USA PATRIOT Act that had gone through the process and passed the two chambers, and just replaced it with the original obnoxious administration proposal, with all the provisions congress had already removed. And then passed it so fast, no one even realized what had happened.

        “My wife is a CPA and works for a hospital. She shares your misgivings and is also deeply disappointed — and she knows the health care industry.”

        Smart lady. The health care industry isn’t really my area of expertise, but I have followed, researched, and written about it for the better part of 20 years, now (which is why my comments on the subject tend to run so long). The ins and outs of national politics, on the other hand, I know quite well, and Obama’s handling of this has been beyond incompetent.

        “If it dies, what are the political consequences?”

        Doesn’t matter. It needs to die, whatever the cost. If the bill passes, real reform will become even more difficult, because the industry, flush with it’s new infusion of revenue, will spend even more to make sure nothing happens.

  2. #4 by renaissanceguy on December 17, 2009 - 13:21

    I have made the same statements about Barack Obama, especially that his rhetoric of hope and change could not be taken literally or trusted implicitly. I have been called all kinds of things for saying it–from pessimistic to cynical to racist. Although, you and I are on different sides of the political spectrum, we can both certainly see the practical side of politics. That’s all I was doing when I made fun of the “hope” and “change” mantras.

    As for President Obama’s being a socialist, it is clear from what he said that he has socialist leanings. Redistributing wealth is one of the hallmarks of socialism. So is using taxes to promote a social agenda. Even if you cannot bring yourself to label him a socialist, would you admit that he is closer to it than any president since FDR?

    Of course somebody who could label President Clinton a conservative would never see Obama as a socialist. However, if Clinton was a conservative, then what exactly was Trent Lott or Phil Gram?

    • #5 by Scott Erb on December 17, 2009 - 13:37

      Political labels are tricky. In Poli-Sci we see socialism as an ideology that has two roots — utopian socialism pre-Marx, and Marx’s scientific/objective socialism. Neither of those ideologies encompasses Obama. Both Obama and Clinton would be closer to the conservative parties in Europe (e.g., the CDU in Germany), and especially Scandinavia. Both embrace market economics as the primary form of economic activity, neither wanted to nationalize major industries (even the health care plan is far less statist than that supported by conservatives in Europe — who see health care akin to education and police service as basic community responsibilities).

      Also, remember that conservatism originally was a reaction against liberalism and capitalism, an ideology focused on the importance of community over the individual, and traditional values. Liberalism arose with the British “libertarian” era (early 1800s, very little regulation of capitalism) to J.S. Mill’s “new liberalism” which saw it necessary for the state to intervene to assure relatively equal opportunity. Arguably Obama and Clinton are much closer to Mill’s “new liberalism” than Marx’s socialism. Moreover, the spectrum in US politics is narrow — most Democrats don’t want that much more spending than Republicans, they agree more than they disagree. The GOP gave us most of the social welfare system we have (Nixon and Ford), and Bush expanded a prescription drug plan.

      So you’re left labeling everyone socialist because they support some government action for the collective good. At that point the label becomes meaningless because its so expansive. Or you can look at the ideology and see that Obama and Clinton each were very good friends with big business, and did nothing to impede the market economy. Indeed, the lack of regulation of things like derivatives and financial instruments, something the Clinton Administration worked to prevent, is a major reason why things got out of control.

      Redistributing wealth and using taxes for a social agenda goes back to Bismarck’s conservatives and has been part of almost every political party’s agenda. Socialists have tended to want to nationalize the plan the economy. The failure of that has led Social Democrats in Europe to move away from socialism and embrace more liberal capitalist doctrines in policy (Schroeder of Germany, 1998-2005 Chancellor, was an example of that).

      Bottom line: labels can be complex, but used too loosely, they become meaningless.

    • #6 by classicliberal2 on December 17, 2009 - 18:09

      “As for President Obama’s being a socialist, it is clear from what he said that he has socialist leanings.”

      Any critique of Obama that starts with that as premise can’t be taken seriously. Scott has already done an admirably even-handed job of correcting the fundamental (and complete) misunderstanding you have of what “socialism” is, so I’ll leave that alone for now, and note only, before completely passing on this, that talk is cheap–even if Obama had ever even hinted at an affinity for socialism (which he hasn’t), what socialist policy has he ever even tried to put into place? Answer: None.

      “Of course somebody who could label President Clinton a conservative would never see Obama as a socialist.”

      The far right uses the word “socialism” as a synonym for “far left” (a basic “all grass is green, therefore all things green are grass” error), but socialism is an ideology, not a matter of degrees, and neither Clinton nor Obama ever gave any indication they subscribe to it, nor have they ever staked out “far left” views on anything. When Bill O’Reilly calls the public option “socialist,” says it’s only advocates are “the far left,” and sourly calls Alan Colmes “Fidel” for advocating it (an exchange that actually happened a few nights ago), he’s saying everything about his own politics, and nothing about anyone else’s. Support for the public option is an utterly mainstream view in the U.S.–every reputable poll has shown it. The ludicrousness of suggesting that 55-72% of the public equals “the far left” should be obvious (the polls are also showing that the current growing dissatisfaction with what is being mislabeled “health care reform” is a consequence of the abandonment of that public option). The public is, in fact, well to the left of Obama on this matter–Americans have, by about 60%, polled in support of the idea of single payer for decades.

      “However, if Clinton was a conservative, then what exactly was Trent Lott or Phil Gram?”

      Uber-conservatives. Clinton’s rule was boilerplate conservative Repuplicanism from day one. What passes for “the right” in the U.S. has, for about 20 years, now, become increasingly dominated by the far right, and their characterization of Clinton (who was, in the real world, much more conservative than even Bush Sr.) and of Obama (who has done nothing but give in to the conservatives from before day one of his administration) is a symptom of this, rather than of anything those two ever did.

      A popular (and false) narrative of the Clinton administration sprang up among the pundit class in the ’90s, the idea that Clinton was some sort of uber-liberal then suddenly changed and became “moderate” or even “conservative” after losing congress. In the real world, Clinton was always conservative. I wrote a corrective back then, just when that narrative was being formulated and popularized:
      http://claslib2.tripod.com/lh/liberalclinton.html

  3. #7 by Scott Erb on December 17, 2009 - 16:12

    Classicliberal: Right now the Democrats have 60 in the Senate and a solid majority in the House. Almost everyone thinks that this is probably a high water mark for the Democrats in the near future. Can you really imagine anything better being passed down the line? Ted Kennedy scuttled Nixon’s proposals back in the early seventies because it wasn’t good enough — yet that was a far more ‘liberal’ plan than this one. So I think counting on “something better” in the future is a dangerous option.

    RG – it should be clear now that criticism of Obama is not met with charges of racism and the like. He’s being treated as just another President. During the campaign, the attacks on him were intense — both in the primary and general election. While sometimes people did see racism in some of the reactions, most of the time it didn’t matter. Race is irrelevant, Obama is the President and is getting the same treatment he would regardless of color.

    • #8 by classicliberal2 on December 17, 2009 - 18:25

      “So I think counting on ‘something better’ in the future is a dangerous option.”

      You’re still missing the point, though. Scuttling what is now being mislabeled as “reform” isn’t about hoping for something better–it’s about preventing a very bad situation from getting worse. The first rule of holes: When you’re stuck in one, stop digging.

      “RG – it should be clear now that criticism of Obama is not met with charges of racism and the like.”

      And the notion that it is is just another damnable lie of the far right, and became tiresome about 5 minutes after it was introduced. Right-wing activists are, in fact, currently circulating an anti-health-reform ad in which people opposed to the current bill say “I guess I’m a racist.” It’s just a preemptive smear launched under the guise of responding to a smear (which, of course, doesn’t exist).

  4. #9 by Rob F on December 18, 2009 - 07:23

    It might be frustrating to not always get what you want, but political deadlock is good for your country. It forces compromise and prevents foolish excesses of both left and right wingers.

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