No Obama misstep goes unpunished

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From health care to the Gulf spill, the President is getting the policy right but not the politics Reuters, Getty Images


David Shribman

Friday, Jun. 11, 2010

When he seems cerebral, his rivals say he lacks emotion. When he seems calm, his opponents criticize him for lacking a sense of outrage. When he expresses outrage (calling the corporate blame game in the oil spill a “ridiculous spectacle”), the Greek chorus deems him intemperate. Barack Obama – once fluid and fluent, unruffled and unflappable – is on the defensive.

Part of that is the natural evolution of a man in a demanding office in a remorseless era. The presidency may be the heart of the American political system, but even in good times, its occupants never cease being targets. “If to be head of Hell is as hard as what I have to undergo here,” said Mr. Obama’s hero, Abraham Lincoln, “I could find it in my heart to pity Satan himself.” That was a century and a half before cable talk shows.

Or, as Lyndon Johnson, who until he became president was regarded as a master of the political arts, once remarked, “Cast your bread upon the waters and the sharks will get it.”

But the surprising thing about Mr. Obama’s presidency, which follows one of the most remarkable ascents in American political history, is not that he gets the policy wrong, as Mr. Johnson did, perhaps with the big-spending Great Society, almost certainly in Vietnam. It is that in his first 17 months in office Mr. Obama repeatedly gets the politics wrong. For if he showed anything in a bruising primary fight with Hillary Rodham Clinton and then a tough general-election battle with John McCain, it was that Barack Obama had a political instinct as fine-tuned as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy.


Like so many presidents before him – General Dwight Eisenhower and five-term governor Bill Clinton are prime modern examples – Mr. Obama’s prepresidential successes provide a dramatic contrast with his White House difficulties. Indeed, in the past two months, several books, including the remarkable volume The Bridge, by David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine, have painted portraits of a destiny-kissed Barack Obama that seem at odds with the man captured on television, described in newspapers and pilloried on cable and the Internet.

Where once Mr. Obama attracted comparisons with Lincoln, the most devastating analogy in modern American politics is now being applied to the President. Repeatedly this month he is being compared to Jimmy Carter, who struggled for credibility in the capital, then was portrayed as feckless in the Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979 and stained his presidency so permanently that the mere invocation of his name is an act of scornful reproach almost a third of a century later.

There is still plenty of time to change the key, the tempo and the dynamics of the Obama ascendancy; at this point in his White House years, Mr. Reagan was deep into a recession he couldn’t plausibly blame on his predecessor (an disadvantage Mr. Obama does not have) and his Republican Party was facing a heavy loss of more than two dozen seats in the House of Representatives in the 1982 midterm congressional elections (a prospect Mr. Obama faces).

Right now, Mr. Obama’s approval ratings are at a tepid 47 per cent, according to a Zogby International poll released this week that also found 54 per cent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. If things don’t turn around in 2010 and 2011, commentators and historians very likely will look at two important turning points that severely damaged the Obama presidency. One (the overhaul of health care in the United States ) comes from a moment of great achievement, the other (the uncontained oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico) from a moment of great failure – and the irony is that the achievement was his and the failure was someone else’s.


First, the achievement. He succeeded where a string of presidents going back as far as Harry Truman more than 60 years ago failed in one of the signature goals of American liberalism: winning universal health-care coverage for Americans, who saw their closest allies, Canada and Great Britain, offer medicare and the National Health Service, respectively, to their citizens.

To be sure, Mr. Obama’s achievement came at a high cost. The totemic predecessors of Obamacare, Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security and Johnson’s Medicare (which, unlike the Canadian system known by that name, is offered primarily to the elderly), were passed with support of both Republicans and Democrats, ensuring their political survival for generations. Indeed, so established a part of American culture is Social Security that no mainstream leader since Barry Goldwater, who lost 44 states in a 1964 landslide, has dared to advocate dismantling it or making substantial adjustments in Medicare, which was passed in 1965.

But Mr. Obama’s health-care plan had only Democratic support; not one Republican in either the House or Senate voted for it. There is a potent reason for that: The parties are far more ideologically coherent in 2010 than they were in Roosevelt’s or Johnson’s time, allowing the 32nd and 36th presidents to pick up Republican support that was not available to the 44th president.

But the result is that Obamacare is a Democratic plan, not an American plan.

And yet that is not remotely the biggest political weakness of Obamacare. Even more dangerous for the President is that the biggest benefits of the plan will not be evident when voters go to the polls in midterm elections this November or when the President runs for re-election in 2012.

A few of the more appealing elements of Mr. Obama’s health plan do go into effect right away, including a provision for insurers to cover family members up to age 26 and the establishment of state insurance pools to allow people with pre-existing medical conditions to purchase subsidized health policies.

But many of the most popular parts of the plan do not go into effect until 2014, two years after the next election. These include the central element of the legislation, which provides subsidized coverage for the majority of the 46.3 million Americans – a group of people 33 per cent larger than the entire population of Canada – who now are without health insurance.

“That is the heart of the big transformation, and we don’t get this until after the 2012 election,’’ says Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University, who is acknowledged as one of the leading health-care authorities in the United States. “The things that might lead people to firmly believe that this is a good idea will not be seen for a number of years. The people who were concerned before the bill was passed have reason to remain concerned.”

That is undermining the President and taking the fizz out of his policy victory.

Representative Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican with a PhD in psychology and co-chair of the bipartisan 21st Century Health Care Caucus, argues that tax increases precede substantial benefit increases. He worries, moreover, that the Obama plan does not provide for enough efficiencies in health-care delivery. “I see the costs climbing and the plan costing money, not saving money,” says Mr. Murphy, who voted against it.


Now to the problem that’s not his fault. Mr. Obama may have erred in taking responsibility for an oil leak prompted by an explosion at a Gulf of Mexico well owned by BP Global. It was one thing for the President to urge, as he did this month, that BP had “moral and legal obligations’’ growing out of the spill. It was another to shoulder moral and political obligations himself – and to put himself in a position where Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine could put on its latest cover an oil-splattered Mr. Obama with the single word “Engulfed.”

No one denies that the oil spill is an economic and environmental catastrophe, but Mr. Obama transformed a corporate disaster into a test of presidential leadership, providing the American federal government with a monumental task even as he provided his presidency with an enormous challenge. Now Mr. Obama is as much at risk as BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward – without, of course the corporate golden parachute – at a time when Washington’s regulatory reach and authority are at modern lows.

“The Obama administration was not fully cognizant of how the Bush administration completely reframed the executive branch through the appointment process and the anti-regulatory environment they created,’’ says Shirley Anne Warshaw, a Gettysburg College expert on the U.S. presidency. “Had they recognized that, they would have moved much more quickly to create their own regulatory environment. They didn’t do that, and they are paying the price for that right now.”

As a result, Mr. Obama faces an environmental challenge for which he didn’t need to take responsibility at the same time he is defending a health-care overhaul whose political payoff won’t be evident until after he leaves office. “No good governance deed,” says Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, “goes unpunished by the American people.” Nor, as Mr. Obama is learning to his immense discomfort, does any political misstep.

David M. Shribman, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of American politics, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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