Health Care: Can Obama Swing It?

Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

Assessing how a president is doing at any given moment runs the danger of mistaking the momentary for the long run, and failing to take into account the political realities he has to face. Judgments of Barack Obama’s presidency have suffered from these failings, which in turn affect—negatively—his ability to govern. The Republicans in Congress have shown that they well understand that the more they can undermine public confidence in Obama’s ability to govern, the more they can undermine his presidency. This explains why they have been so intent on portraying—against much evidence—the $787 billion economic stimulus bill as a failure.

Thus, by Labor Day of 2009, not only his health care proposal but Obama’s very effectiveness as a president were widely—if not necessarily accurately—viewed as hanging by a thread. A White House aide told me that Obama was “very frustrated” by his inability to convince people that the stimulus program was working. And so, months after it had been passed, he began to explain more clearly than ever before what the program—which he insisted on calling the Recovery Act (its actual name is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act)—was designed to do, and had already done. As was the case during the presidential campaign, Obama is sometimes slow in arriving at an effective formulation, and he presses his aides to sharpen his message. Finding a voice that is explanatory rather than oratorical can be difficult for him. This definitely has been the case with health care. On September 20, Obama told George Stephanopoulos:

There have been times where I’ve said I’ve got to step up my game in terms of talking to the American people about issues like health care. I’ve said to myself, somehow I’m not breaking through…. This has been a sufficiently tough, complicated issue with so many moving parts that no matter how much I’ve tried to keep it digestible, it’s very hard for people to get their whole arms around it. That has been a case where I’ve been humbled and I just keep on trying harder because I really think it’s the right thing to do for the country.

In fact, the question has arisen of whether Barack Obama’s particular—one might say idiosyncratic—governing style is right for these times.

The circumstances in which Obama has had to govern have been daunting. The polarization between the political parties is greater than ever before in modern history—particularly as the shrinking Republican Party has come to be dominated by white conservatives, if not radicals, and it enforces discipline more harshly than in the past. Lacking any real leaders now, the Republicans’ vacuum has been filled by the likes of talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, whose job it is to be outrageous, and before whom Republican politicians quaver. Those who stray from the conservative orthodoxy are more …

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