Late Sunday night, Obama’s presidency, written off by so many, was resurrected. In securing passage of health care reform in the House of Representatives — a holy grail for Democratic presidents going back to at least the New Deal years, and one seen by many as being impossible in the wake of Senator Brown’s election — Obama has reclaimed control of his political narrative.
Presidents are made great by horrible circumstances combined with character, temperament and intelligence. Like firemen, cops, doctors or soldiers, presidents need a crisis to shine.
Obama is one of the most intelligent presidents to ever step forward in American history. The likes of his intellectual capabilities have not been surpassed in public life since the Founding Fathers put pen to paper. His personal character is also solid gold. Take heart, America: we have the leader for our times. He’s just outworked and outsmarted the far right and the far left. The Tea party troglodytes are reduced to yelling racial epithets from the sidelines. The Lefty critics have egg on their faces.
For the past six months, the Obama presidency has been attacked, predictably, from the right for being too radical. More surprisingly, it has been attacked with about equal vehemence from the left for being a do-nothing administration.
While Obama has been pummeled over many issues, none have proven more of a lightening rod than health care reform. To conservatives — seen in full, unpleasant, throttle both inside and outside the Capitol on Sunday — any attempt to ensure near-universal health care coverage is a big-government power grab, emblematic of the president’s purported dictatorial tendencies. To a large number of progressives, Obama’s willingness to play the at times unseemly game of real politick regarding single-payer coverage, his tolerance for cutting deals necessary to secure support from the overwhelming majority of Democrats in both Houses of Congress, was an unforgivable let-down, a give-away to insurance and big-pharma interests.
After the Senate election in Massachusetts, many commentators entirely wrote the Obama administration off — as being a phenomenon born in a welter of hope but one that frittered away all prospects for change in a year of political bickering and ugly compromises.
This has always struck me as being far too pessimistic. Time and again when I was researching my book Inside Obama’s Brain, friends, colleagues, and long-time observers of Barack Obama explained both his political tenaciousness and his strength as a counter-puncher.
One of the president’s sporting heroes is the boxer Muhammad Ali, who specialized in drawing his opponents in, letting them gain in confidence, and enticing them to come in against him firing on all cylinders, at which point he would dance around them and unleash a devastating counter-attack. The rope-a-dope strategy allowed Ali to live up to his moniker: the Greatest.
For decades, this has been Obama’s modus operandi. He goes the extra mile for bipartisanship, but when his opponents come after him, he shows his firmness, his ability to play hard when the chips are down.
In deciding to defeat health care reform whatever the broader social costs, the GOP explicitly aimed to create for the president his “Waterloo,” a shattering battle that would hollow him out as a leader. In failing, ultimately, to defeat this bill, the GOP has left itself deeply vulnerable. They threw everything they had into a scare-mongering campaign, refused to engage in meaningful dialogue with the Democrats over reform, embraced a faux-populism, and they saw bumps in their poll numbers as a result. If there had been an election in January or February, they would have done very well. But in politics, timing is everything. My guess is that the conservative groundswell reached high tide a few weeks ago. Between now and November, I believe that tide will ebb significantly.
After all, it’s one thing to oppose universal health care in the abstract, to mobilize demonstrators through silly, hyperbolic comparisons between Obama and Stalin, or between the Democrats and the Bolsheviks; to equate expanded access to health care coverage with the most extreme totalitarian movements of the twentieth century. It’s quite another thing to run for election explicitly committed to rolling back health care coverage for tens of millions of Americans, to rolling back rules that forbid insurance companies from discriminating against patients with pre-existing conditions, and to ending regulations intended to limit how much companies can raise their premiums.
The Republicans know they had the chance to prevent health care reform from ever being enacted; but they also know that once it’s enacted, realistically they cannot easily remove it from the American social compact again.
And that brings me to my second point. Obama has always been more interested in long-term transformative politics, in the building of new institutions and new social relationships, and in doing so at a sustainable tempo, than in the short-term gimmicks that too often pass for serious political discourse in modern-day America.
Senior policy advisers I spoke with for my book told me how Obama would come into meetings and tell them that instead of thinking about tomorrow’s poll numbers or headlines, they should think about what sort of a country they wanted to live in twenty years down the road, then think about what institutions and policies had to exist ten years from now to put America on the road to that sort of change; then think about what it would have to look like five years, and finally one year from now to get there.
Thinking long-term, instead of being preoccupied with the twenty-four hour news cycle, has always made Barack Obama a hard political figure to pigeon hole, and it has frequently made commentary on Obama inadequate. When the daily headlines go sour for Obama, commentators stampede to denounce his ineffectiveness, his indecisiveness. It happened during the primary season, when many argued he couldn’t close the deal against Clinton — and then he did. It happened during the election campaign when many, including influential figures within the Democratic Party, thought he had been blind-sided by McCain’s choice of Palin as a running mate — and then he rode out the hype and won a resounding election victory. Now it has happened again with health care reform.
To his great credit, Obama has refused to be panicked by the pundits and instead shown a quiet, calm, deliberative confidence in his ideas — including his vision of the role of government and of progressive regulations in American life — and also his ability to navigate the tough, and often ugly, political system to bring those reforms to life.
In my book, I argued that Obama had the potential to be a transformative president. Today, as more than a year of debate over health care reform draws to a close, Obama’s legacy is beginning to be cemented in place. In securing a reform that has eluded presidents as savvy in playing the game of politics, as hard-knuckled, as Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Bill Clinton, President Obama has found his sea legs.
Barack Obama has withstood the political equivalent of the London Blitz — he has been bombarded day-in-day-out for months, his reputation skewered from both the left and the right of the spectrum, his motives questioned. With tonight’s vote, the momentum shifts. Chapter Two of the Obama presidency can now begin.