Roving thoughts and provocations

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Obama: One-Eighth of a Presidency

Thursday morning—Christmas Eve, that is, just after 7 a.m.—the United States Senate did something it’s never done and passed a bill that aims for broad reforms of America’s private health-insurers (it also delivers them 30 million new customers over the next decade, a bone of contention on the left). Potential snags exist, to be sure, but in all likelihood Barack Obama will become the first president, out of eight who’ve tried, to pass large-scale health reform. His presidency is either one-quarter or one-eighth over. Let us say, for argument’s sake (because the economy is starting to turn around; and because of the advantages of incumbency), that it is the latter. What have we learned in this first year that might tell us something about the next seven?

Three things, I think. The first is that he’s not the liberal tiger some people assumed or hoped he would be. Put aside the contingent of Americans who consider him a Communist. The rest of us should by now, I think, see him as the center-left politician he is, a person whose deepest intellectual conviction is to look skeptically upon conviction. He has, by the way, never said otherwise. If you happened to read The Audacity of Hope, which I reviewed here, this is the person you encountered.

Whether one likes his positions or not, he has been quite consistent from campaign to presidency. The troop surge in Afghanistan is in line with what he always said he’d do, as are his overtures to Iran and other hostile nations. Likewise, he’s agreed to bail out major financial institutions without imposing the kind of regulations that would constrain Wall Street; and he has not used the government to reduce unemployment. But he never was an economic populist and his campaign team was wary of too much government intervention.

The only area in which his presidential actions strikingly don’t match his rhetoric as a candidate is in matters of civil liberties and preventive detention, on which his administration has fallen far short of advocates’ hopes. Otherwise, he has governed more or less as he indicated he would. If liberals had different expectations, they weren’t studying the record. This isn’t to say he won’t do or attempt “liberal things,” but it is to say that he won’t necessarily do them in ways that will make his party’s base ecstatic.

Second, in his concern with not repeating some predecessor’s errors, he seems to have over-learned some lessons of history. He did give Congress too much leeway on health care, and in the future we can probably look for him to try to keep Congress on a shorter leash when dealing with major legislation. It is unclear in practice what that might mean. Congress, as we have seen, dances to its own tune. I would anticipate an institutional turf battle of some sort in the future. Senators, having stuck their necks out (as they see it) on health care, will be reluctant to do so again; but liberals will be pushing Obama to do something aggressive for unions and for gay men and lesbians. An intramural scrimmage is coming.

Third—and this is just guesswork on my part—it’s not always clear that he’s enjoying this. Though the Senate health bill is a very handy Christmas present for the president, he expended considerable political capital to get it passed—much more, we can be sure, than he’d initially planned or hoped to when, with approval ratings above 65 percent, he began discussing health-care reform back in May. The New Year will bring more tense negotiations between the House and Senate to iron out differences in their versions.

Almost any president would resent history for dumping the financial crisis in his lap. But in Obama’s case, that collapse—combined with the blind rage of Republicans and conservatives, which no one anticipated—seems to have jarred him. At times, announcing this or that small-business program or what have you, he seems preoccupied and distant. He is not a natural empath. Maybe a strengthening economy will improve his outlook. In the meantime, if a rookie season that saw its share of bumps and errors ends up making way for the passage of the most progressive piece of major legislation in probably forty years, a bill whose strengths overwhelm its shortcomings, then that ends up being a pretty good first year.

—Updated December 24, 2009

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