A year after his election, Obama's promise of change remains unfulfilled, and his country as divided as ever. But he could yet be one of the greatest presidents America has ever hadby James Crabtree / October 21, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Read James Crabtree’s Obama anniversary blog, arguing why—despite the setbacks—the president is doing just fine
One year on from his election victory, how should we judge President Barack Obama? He has passed a $787bn (£500bn) stimulus package and a $3.4 trillion budget, bailed out America’s floundering car makers, and launched landmark legislation to reform healthcare, tighten regulation on a crippled financial sector, and cut greenhouse gases. Against a backdrop of economic chaos and partisan division, and especially if some form of health reform passes by the end of the year, Obama’s early record will look impressive. It’s been a good start.
That said, a president who promised unity has also brought discord. The saner wings of the American right (and some Democrats) worry that his moderate tone hides policies that dangerously expand the grip of the state, and the depth of its debt. The less sane gather in the streets and howl about the road to socialism. Critics on the left, meanwhile, already see a once-in-a-generation missed opportunity. Obama has a thumping electoral mandate, and control of congress. Yet he stimulated the economy too little, and fluffed a perfect moment to bring in radical measures to take on America’s banks and health insurers. Behind these worries, doubts lurk about what the president stands for, and whether the “Obama-ism” implicit in his campaign can translate into governance. Put more simply: has Obama begun to change Washington, or has Washington begun to change him?
I travelled to the US in August to get a closer look at his progress. In the stifling heat of late summer, and against a backdrop of raucous conservative street protests, I found the administration’s early self-confidence quickly giving way to nervousness in the Democratic establishment and an acute awareness of the high wire on which Obama walks. The stimulus hadn’t stopped unemployment nudging past 10 per cent. Healthcare and climate change reforms lay stalled amid congressional bickering. Attempts at bipartisanship had been rebuffed. Democratic operatives, sensing blood, whispered ominously about which of Obama’s senior staff would be culled if healthcare failed. A few months later and the mood is better, buoyed by a fresh push on healthcare legislation that now looks likely to pass. Nonetheless, Obama’s reputation remains precariously poised between success and failure, and a number of well-placed figures worry that he could still lose in the only way that truly counts—and serve only one term.
CAMPAIGN OVER, THE REAL WORK BEGINS
The week after Obama’s election victory last November, his transition team moved into an office on Washington’s K Street and began to build a new government. Promises had been made to reboot America’s dysfunctional economy, patch up its fragmented social institutions, and even mend its national character. But how would they translate into policy? Would he govern to the left or the centre; with caution or with élan? Such questions stemmed in part from Obama’s ideological slipperiness. He is neither obviously liberal, nor a Clintonite moderate. His campaign was economically centrist, yet also strongly against the Iraq war. His relative youth places him beyond the culture war bickering of America’s Vietnam generation, yet his race anchors him firmly within it. He made “hope” a political icon, yet also claimed Reinhold Niebuhr, a deeply pessimistic theologian, as his favourite philosopher*. And his defining characteristic remains one of approach, not of belief: a willingness to see merit in the arguments of opponents, and a keenness to reach across partisan divides. His is a broadly liberal policy approach which is disposed to compromise if needed. As a result, his lyrical speeches allow people to read what they will. Speaking in September, the leftist filmmaker Michael Moore appealed to the president to push a stronger, more liberal healthcare bill: “You are one of us. You need to fight for us.” Nonetheless, moderate right-wingers, like New York Times columnist David Brooks, have fallen giddily for Obama too.
Obama’s early steps did little to clear up the confusion. His staffing choices were decidedly centrist. In 1992 Bill Clinton picked a number of left wingers, notably economist Robert Reich, to balance out an orthodox team. Obama didn’t even do that, picking advisers and cabinet secretaries entirely from the establishment right of his party. Yet those same advisers—notably chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and strategy adviser David Axelrod—jettisoned any reputation for caution. Faced with the choice to “go big, or go long” they went big, pushing for both healthcare and climate change legislation in their first year. The decision was understandable—had they waited the chance may have passed. But it was hardly the mark of a cautious leader. Yet the administration was clear that going big didn’t mean going ideological, with Obama dubbing his philosophy as one of “progressive pragmatism.” Emanuel has been quoted justifying the aggressive agenda, saying that a crisis was a terrible thing to waste. But a more important adage came in a phrase he repeated in early morning West Wing staff meetings: “The only non-negotiable principle here is success. Everything else is negotiable.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the policies that followed have been an ideologically mixed bag too. The appointment of a relatively liberal supreme court justice during August was a substantial achievement, but one pushed through so skilfully that it seems largely forgotten; a rare example of the “no drama, Obama” approach of his campaign. But elsewhere America’s fractious law-making process meant wrangling over legislation attracted most attention—and passing laws became the most prominent benchmark for success. Here the stimulus package was an early win, albeit one pushed forward by the economic crisis, and one even the administration now admits was too small. This was partly because it included too many tax cuts (in an unsuccessful attempt to woo Republican backers), and partly because much of it was made up of hundreds of billions in long-term education, energy research and transport investment. Republicans correctly suspected that such measures would do little to stimulate the economy in the short term, but such stealthy funding of traditional liberal concerns could well turn out to be one of Obama’s most important achievements. (It also means that Obama now “owns” an economic crisis inherited from his predecessor rather earlier than he might have wished.) Moves towards financial regulation have been less successful. After a tumultuous start, treasury secretary Tim Geithner’s plan to “stress test” America’s banks seemed to restore market confidence. But the regulatory framework for Wall Street remains unchanged from that which failed to prevent the financial crisis, while current reform proposals have been widely criticised for lacking any measures likely to stop future exuberance. Meanwhile, the push for a cap and trade scheme on CO2 emissions, undertaken to allow the US to negotiate in good faith during the December summit (see “A climate deal: an American perspective,” p9 of the Copenhagen special), is the least likely of Obama’s legislative priorities to pass any time soon.
Throughout these various battles a common pattern has emerged. Obama handed much of the detail of policy development over to congress, forcing his team to spend most of its time wrangling behind the scenes. This has at times distracted from efforts to explain the need for such reforms to the public, forcing frequent mid-course presidential PR blitzes—first on the stimulus, lately on healthcare—to reverse declines in public support. On each occasion Obama has also attempted and failed to win over more than a handful of Republicans, despite offering them large concessions. As a result, most measures are pushed through on something close to a straight party-line basis. And nowhere has this pattern, and Obama’s pragmatic approach, been seen more clearly than the debate over healthcare, and in particular the bitter divisions over the plan to introduce a “public option” into America’s private sector health system.
TEMPERATURE RISES OVER HEALTHCARE
The president’s state of the union address could hardly have been clearer. “The time is at hand this year to bring comprehensive, high quality healthcare within the reach of every American,” he argued. “I shall propose a sweeping new programme that will assure comprehensive health insurance protection to millions of Americans who cannot now obtain it or afford it.” He left the rostrum with good reason to think that his plan would succeed. He was wrong. For within months of uttering those words in 1974, Richard Nixon was soon to join the long line of presidents who have failed to reform America’s uniquely unjust and expensive healthcare system, a line in which Obama is just the most recent member.
The reform package proposed by Nixon was arguably more radical than the one which Obama is trying to haul over the finish line. Obama’s team refused to produce a plan—learning the lessons, they said, of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s failed effort in the 1990s. The decision was at once less wise and less risky than is commonly assumed. Less wise because (as should also have been clear from Clinton’s reforms) the long delays for congressional debate allowed opponents to fill the airwaves with scare stories, almost killing the chance for reform before it began. But less risky, too, because the political consensus on the need for reform was stronger than in the early 1990s, and broad agreement already existed among Democrats about the common components of any possible plan. Under any plausible reform package most Americans will still get health insurance from their employer. Those currently uninsured will be forced to buy coverage through new insurance “exchanges” where private insurers would offer different packages, while being forced to cover everyone regardless of their health records. Poorer Americans will be subsidised to buy insurance—although there has been debate about how poor you have to be, and how much help you will get. Indeed the only real controversy (among Democrats, at least) was whether the reforms should create a new government-run insurance company to compete with the private providers. It is this reform—passionately backed by liberals, distrusted by Republicans—that has defined the ideological character of this year’s healthcare debate.
The man most directly responsible for the public option is Jacob Hacker, a charismatic young political scientist at Yale University. He told me how the idea had first arisen from a well-received paper he wrote in 2001 and republished in 2007. Health wonks warmed to its ability to create competition, ultimately helping to halt America’s rocketing healthcare costs. Liberals liked it because it was the next best thing to a more ambitious (but politically impossible) national healthcare system as in Britain, or nearby Canada. But for the right (and indeed some on the left) the public option was a Trojan horse, designed to hobble the private sector and usher in “socialised medicine” by stealth. Sensing his opportunity, Hacker began pitching the idea to potential presidential candidates. He first spoke to then-Senator Obama in late 2007, before his campaign had been officially launched, finding him “extremely gracious and non-committal.” And after Obama announced his candidacy Hacker kept in touch, taking part in “a number of frenzied late-night phone calls with people in his campaign,” as they rushed to beat Hillary Clinton to be the first to publish a health plan. Yet despite Hacker’s efforts it was John Edwards, another Democratic candidate for president, who first came out for the idea, with Obama following later. This lateness, when combined with the fact that Obama’s health proposals were the most centrist of all three campaigns—a feature they shared with his other policy positions—sowed doubts among liberals. Was Obama really committed to the idea at all?
These questions persisted throughout the 2008 campaign, and continued this year as healthcare proposals have wound their way through congress. Obama says he backs the public option, but also gives the impression that his backing might not be that strong. In one notorious incident in mid-August 2009 one of his closest aides Valerie Jarrett (a longtime friend from Chicago) told a conference of liberal bloggers that she had been personally assured by Obama that he backed the idea. Two days later health secretary Kathleen Sebelius went on a Sunday talk show and said Obama was prepared to drop it. Such confusions have lead some to speculate that he sees the public option as a bargaining chip, soon cashed in to get a deal through. Hacker disagrees, and thinks that with the nervous summer behind them (and momentum for healthcare building) the prospects of a bill with a public option have increased. But you’d get better odds on it being dropped as part of a final compromise. If so, one question will remain: in an administration in which everything is negotiable except success, has a willingness to negotiate too quickly too often left the chance for real change behind?
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO OBAMA-ISM?
If the first year hasn’t cleared up the question of Obama’s core beliefs, it has become much clearer that the “Obama-ism” promised by his campaign has largely failed to translate into a governing philosophy. In his favour, Obama campaigned on the need for comprehensive solutions to America’s problems, rather than the piecemeal reforms that came to dominate the government of his predecessor Bill Clinton. Yet while Obama has often been bold in the scope of his plans, his campaign’s calls for radical change also often glossed over relatively orthodox policies. His campaign also promised an administration that would rise above Washington’s partisan divides. Instead it has run up against the reality of getting things done in a fractured political system. It is the system that has changed the president as much as the reverse.
Indeed, if Obama-ism meant anything, it was that partisanship could be overcome. His most famous speech, given to the Democratic convention in 2004, encapsulated this. Playing off the idea of red conservative states and liberal blue states, he said: “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states.” America, he claimed, was more united than it appeared and so its politics could be too. Yet the last year has proved that its divisions are real. And in the five years since that speech, it has become more divided not less. As congress-watcher Thomas Mann of think tank the Brookings Institution told me, in today’s congress “there is not a single Democrat who is more conservative than the most liberal Republican. A generation ago there was a huge overlap, and therefore the possibility of bipartisan coalitions was very much alive, in fact it was needed to get anything done.” Now such coalitions are virtually impossible.
To give Obama credit, he has tried. There have been innumerable charm offensives. Republicans in congress have been called, coddled, and cajoled by the White House to a degree unprecedented in recent US history. But nothing has worked, the president has received precious little for his efforts, and ultimately has been forced to rely on strictly party-political pushes more similar to those of President Bush. The liberal blogger Ezra Klein told me during my visit that he was close to concluding that change of the sort Obama promised was now impossible, given the divisions in Washington. In short, Obama the post-partisan politician ran hard against the wall of partisan Washington. And the wall held.
Obama-ism also promised a different kind of politics. Obama, much as every American president since Carter (with perhaps the exception of the first Bush) campaigned as an outsider. (Candidates who seem too insidery—Bob Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton—normally lose.) Yet this too has been difficult to deliver, in particular as the president has run his administration as a consummate Washington insider. During the campaign Hillary Clinton hinted darkly that Obama the ingénue was too naive to get anything done, too green to cope with the infamous 3am phone call. Obama has almost done too much to disprove her, building a team of practised Capitol Hill operatives and working behind the scenes to find routes through the city’s corridors of power. Here Obama’s instincts—developed as an operative in Chicago’s byzantine politics, and honed as a relatively liberal senator—have trumped the transformative promise of his election. Yet the result is still an oddity: Obama argued that change meant fixing Washington first, yet handed over the business of change to old Beltway hands and to congress.
The realities of Washington have also meant that Obama has had to rely on the unity of his own Democratic coalition to an unexpected degree. Despite a reputation for disunity, and occasional internal spats, the Democrats are actually arguably more united (both in congress, and in the country) than at any time in a generation. Obama has helped to build this unity by being notably unwilling to take on his own party. Unlike President Clinton before him, he is not easily identifiable as a member of any one Democratic faction. And while Clinton was comfortable defining himself against his party’s left, Obama is happy to move pragmatically between left and right. His ability to do this, in turn, flows from his strength with important party constituencies. African-American Democrats are unlikely to desert him. He remains hugely popular among educated middle-class elites. The much vaunted “netroots” bloggers, ostensibly to Obama’s left, remain loyal, in part out of admiration for the new type of campaigning and politics that his candidacy embodied. There are few constituencies in the Democratic family which Obama risks losing—giving him flexibility to change positions on issues in search of successful legislation.
The result of all this has been that glimpses of Obama the post-partisan outsider have been rare in government. In its place has been a sort of “one nation” liberalism; centrist in inclination, but broadly liberal on policy and more than willing to compromise. In fact, Obama’s first year has more in common with that of his Texan predecessor than he might like to admit. Bush began his presidency intent on delivering a more compassionate conservatism, only for 11th September to change his course towards a rollicking campaign against evildoers. Obama entered the White House ostensibly to heal America’s political and racial divides. Yet just as terrorism changed Bushism, so the economic crisis and the realities of government changed Obama too. Where he once sounded more sceptical than most liberals of the efficacy of government intervention, he now found himself having to take over banks and run car companies. And just like his predecessor, Obama has been forced to rely on a partisan system, and the unity of his own party, to get anything done.
Yet, for all that, his early achievements remain impressive. Better to govern effectively on party lines than as a post-partisan failure. His next few years will, if anything, be more difficult than his bruising first. Passing a stimulus might have seemed tough. But next year Obama must pivot towards an even less popular agenda of fiscal austerity, with both budget cuts and tax rises likely. The coming fight over immigration reform will make the battle for healthcare seem civil. Obama’s party may lose seats in the 2010 midterm elections, in part because their current dominance means the only way is down. It is even conceivable that with unemployment high and growth low that he might lose control of the house of representatives, as Bill Clinton did in 1994. But if Obama passes healthcare, and as the US economy recovers, the president will face a Republican rump with few plausible attractive candidates, and seems set for easy re-election in 2012.
Even in the summer gloom, the Beltway insiders I spoke to still seemed conscious that, were things to break his way, the presently embattled Obama remains in reach of greatness. In the middle of one interview about the vagaries of congressional tactics, in an office building only a short walk from the domed Capitol building, one senior Democrat policymaker paused suddenly. “Take a step back,” he said. And putting exaggerated emphasis on each word, he continued: “You have to remember that, even now, the Obama people think they have a shot at the Mall.” There are no higher stakes than this.
Only four of America’s 43 leaders have earned a memorial on their capital’s central strip. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin D Roosevelt arrived at a time of economic and military crisis, and took action to resolve it. All built lasting new social institutions. Most importantly, all helped to bind their nation together through an ability to embody and articulate a rebirth of what it means to be an American. And, however unlikely, all this is still possible for Obama, too.
*This article was amended by Prospect on 06-11-09, in order to refer to Reinhold Niebuhr as a Protestant theologian, rather than a Catholic theologian as originally stated.