The New York Times

March 7, 2010
Op-Ed Columnist

The Up-or-Down Vote on Obama's Presidency


WEDNESDAY’S health care rally was one of President Obama’s finest hours. It was so fine it couldn’t be blighted even by his preposterous backdrop, a cohort of white-jacketed medical workers large enough to staff a hospital in one of the daytime soaps that refused to be pre-empted by the White House show.

Obama’s urgent script didn’t need such cheesy theatrics. At last he took ownership of what he called “my proposal,” stating concisely three concrete ways the bill would improve America’s broken health care system. At last he pushed for a majority-rule, up-or-down vote in Congress. At last he conceded that bipartisan agreement between two parties with “honest and substantial differences” on fundamental principles wasn’t happening. At last he mobilized his rhetoric against a villain everyone could hiss — insurance companies. In a brief address, he mentioned these malefactors of great greed 13 times.

There was only one problem. This finest hour arrived hastily and tardily. At 1:45 p.m. Eastern time, who was watching? Of those who did watch or caught up later, how many bought the president’s vow to finish the job “in the next few weeks”? We’ve heard this too many times before. Last May Obama said he would have a bill by late July. In July he said he wanted it “done by the fall.” The White House’s new date for final House action — specified as March 18 by Robert Gibbs, the press secretary — is already in jeopardy.

“They are waiting for us to act,” Obama said on Wednesday of the American people. “They are waiting for us to lead.” Actually, they have given up waiting. Some 80 percent of the country believes that “nothing can be accomplished” in Washington, according to an Ipsos/McClatchy poll conducted a week ago. The percentage is just as high among Democrats, many of whom admire the president but have a sinking sense of disillusionment about his ability to exercise power.

Now that we have finally arrived at the do-or-die moment for Obama’s signature issue, we face the alarming prospect that his presidency could be toast if he doesn’t make good on a year’s worth of false starts. And it won’t even be the opposition’s fault. If too many Democrats in the House defect, health care will be dead. The G.O.P. would be able to argue this fall, not without reason, that the party holding the White House and both houses of Congress cannot govern.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that Obama does eke out his victory. Republicans claim that if he does so by “ramming through” the bill with the Congressional reconciliation process, they will have another winning issue for November. On this, they are wrong. Their problem is not just their own hypocritical record on reconciliation, which they embraced gladly to ram through the budget-busting Bush tax cuts. They’d also have to contend with this country’s congenitally short attention span. Once the health care fight is over and out of sight, it will be out of mind to most Americans. We’ve already forgotten about Afghanistan — until the next bloodbath.

The 2010 election will instead be fought about the economy, as most elections are, especially in a recession whose fallout remains severe. But that battle may be even tougher for this president and his party — and not just because of the unemployment numbers. The leadership shortfall we’ve witnessed during Obama’s yearlong health care march — typified by the missed deadlines, the foggy identification of his priorities, the sometimes abrupt shifts in political tone and strategy — won’t go away once the bill does. This weakness will remain unless and until the president himself corrects it.

Those who are unsympathetic or outright hostile to Obama frame his failures as an attempt to impose “socialism” on a conservative nation. The truth is that the Fox News right would believe this about any Democratic president no matter who he was and what his policies were. Obama, who has expanded the war in Afghanistan and proved reluctant to reverse extra-constitutional Bush-Cheney jurisprudence, is a radical mainly to those who believe a conservative Republican senator like Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas is a closet commie.

The more serious debate about Obama is being conducted by neutral or sympathetic observers. There are many hypotheses. In Newsweek, Jon Meacham has written about an “inspiration gap.” He sees the professorial president as “sometimes seeming to be running the Brookings Institution, not the country.” In The New Yorker, Ken Auletta has raised the perils of Obama’s overexposure in our fractionalized media. (As if to prove the point, the president was scheduled to appear on Fox’s “America’s Most Wanted” to celebrate its 1,000th episode this weekend.) In the Beltway, the hottest conversations center on the competence of Obama’s team. Washington Post columnists are now dueling over whether Rahm Emanuel is an underutilized genius whose political savvy the president has foolishly ignored — or a bull in the capital china shop who should be replaced before he brings Obama down.

But the buck stops with the president, not his chief of staff. And if there’s one note that runs through many of the theories as to why Obama has disappointed in Year One, it cuts to the heart of what had been his major strength: his ability to communicate a compelling narrative. In the campaign, that narrative, of change and hope, was powerful — both about his own youth, biography and talent, and about a country that had gone wildly off track during the failed presidency of his predecessor. In governing, Obama has yet to find a theme that is remotely as arresting to the majority of Americans who still like him and are desperate for him to succeed.

The problem is not necessarily that Obama is trying to do too much, but that there is no consistent, clear message to unite all that he is trying to do. He has variously argued that health care reform is a moral imperative to protect the uninsured, a long-term fiscal fix for the American economy and an attempt to curb insurers’ abuses. It may be all of these, but between the multitude of motives and the blurriness (until now) of Obama’s own specific must-have provisions, the bill became a mash-up that baffled or defeated those Americans on his side and was easily caricatured as a big-government catastrophe by his adversaries.

Obama prides himself on not being ideological or partisan — of following, as he put it in his first prime-time presidential press conference, a “pragmatic agenda.” But pragmatism is about process, not principle. Pragmatism is hardly a rallying cry for a nation in this much distress, and it’s not a credible or attainable goal in a Washington as dysfunctional as the one Americans watch in real time on cable. Yes, the Bush administration was incompetent, but we need more than a brilliant mediator, manager or technocrat to move us beyond the wreckage it left behind. To galvanize the nation, Obama needs to articulate a substantive belief system that’s built from his bedrock convictions. His presidency cannot be about the cool equanimity and intellectual command of his management style.

That he hasn’t done so can be attributed to his ingrained distrust of appearing partisan or, worse, a knee-jerk “liberal.” That is admirable in intellectual theory, but without a powerful vision to knit together his vision of America’s future, he comes off as a doctrinaire Democrat anyway. His domestic policies, whether on climate change or health care or regulatory reform, are reduced to items on a standard liberal wish list. If F.D.R. or Reagan could distill, coin and convey a credo “nonideological” enough to serve as an umbrella for all their goals and to attract lasting majority coalitions of disparate American constituencies, so can this gifted president.

He cannot wait much longer. The rise in credit-card rates, as well as the drop in consumer confidence, home sales and bank lending, all foretell more suffering ahead for those who don’t work on Wall Street. But on these issues the president, too timid to confront the financial industry backers of his own campaign (or their tribunes in his own administration) and too fearful of sounding like a vulgar partisan populist, has taken to repeating his health care performance.

And so leadership on financial reform, as with health care, has been delegated to bipartisan Congressional negotiators poised to neuter it. The protracted debate that now seems imminent — over whether a consumer protection agency will be in the Fed or outside it — is again about the arcana of process and bureaucratic machinery, not substance. Since Obama offers no overarching narrative of what financial reform might really mean to Americans in their daily lives, Americans understandably assume the reforms will be too compromised or marginal to alter a system that leaves their incomes stagnant (at best) while bailed-out bankers return to partying like it’s 2007. Even an unimpeachable capitalist titan like Warren Buffett, venting in his annual letter to investors last month, sounds more fired up about unregulated derivatives and more outraged about unpunished finance-industry executives than the president does.

This time Obama doesn’t have a year to arrive at his finest hour. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the clock runs out on Nov. 2.