Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Was Obama Too "Hands Off"?

I think the NYT oped this morning on "live" filibusters got me cranky, so here's a cranky post on health care...

It has become, I think it's safe to say, conventional wisdom that Barack Obama was insufficiently engaged in the Congressional process on health care.  Here's Stuart Rothenberg (via Chait, who has good comments too):
The White House failed to give Congress enough direction on policy, letting each chamber chew over the issue until a wide gap existed between the House and Senate bills.
And here's Clive Crook:
He outsourced this reform to Democrats in Congress.
But there was a middle way between a Hillary-like fait accompli and failing to exercise meaningful guidance and supervision.
Andrew Sullivan supports the bill and Obama, but I think he buys into the "stand back" idea, responding to Crook::
Obama fault Number One: "putting Congress in charge" of legislation. Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't the point of Congress to pass legislation. What is the legislative branch for if it isn't to, er, legislate? In such a huge undertaking, will it be long and messy? Of course.
I strongly suspect that when the full history of the health care reform effort is written, it will turn out that the White House was highly involved, every step of the way.  And, yes, it is the job of the Congress to legislate...but it's also the job of the president.  As Richard Neustadt said, it isn't a government of separation of powers; it's a government of separated institutions sharing powers. The president absolutely has a role in legislating.  What he can't do is dictate to the Congress.  Again, I suppose at this point there's as much speculation as anything, but it sure looks to me as if Obama successfully found the "middle way" that Crook wanted.  Of course, to understand that requires understanding that Congress is not something for the president to "guide and supervise."  It's a co-equal branch, and it must be worked with, not supervised. 

What I find baffling about critiques such as Rothenberg's is the idea that health care reform was fundamentally mishandled.  Hey folks: health care reform is likely to pass!  It didn't pass under Truman.  Or Kennedy.  Or Johnson.  Or Carter.  Or Clinton.  Perhaps it still will collapse...but if it does pass, it's a tremendous accomplishment -- even getting this close seems to me a tremendous accomplishment -- and to assume that it could have been done much quicker, or easier, just seems almost bizarre to me. 

OK, some specifics.

First, it is far from clear that any president, even a popular one, can (as Crook wanted), have much of an effect on public opinion by "making the case not for reform in the abstract, but for a specific proposal capable of commanding wide support."  Nor is it at all clear to me that had Obama attached himself to more specific legislation he would have been in better shape in any way.  Exactly what would he have talked about that he didn't talk about?  The excise tax?  It is possible that Obama was mistaken in highlighting the deficit and cost cutting aspects of health care reform instead of popular provisions such as insurance reforms, but while it is probably true that those arguments were not ideal for changing public opinion, they were effective in getting Obama's priority for cost controls through Congress, which was hardly assured. 

Second, I think most of Rothenberg's comments on Congress are pretty off-base.  He claims that there was a wide difference between the House and Senate bills, but in fact according to all reports a compromise was either close or complete just before the Massachusetts Senate election, less than a month after the Senate completed its work.  Now, I've criticized them for (as far as I could tell from reporting) failing to rush to conference and wasting time between Christmas Eve Day and the week after New Year's, but after that things moved quickly because the bills were, in fact, not far apart.  Only the funding mechanism was truly difficult to bridge.  As for this:
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was too interested in laying down a liberal marker from which to negotiate and too sensitive to the concerns of her senior Members, all of whom represent safe seats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the other major player, seemed deaf to his chamber’s political realities.
Again, I'm not sure what Congress Rothenberg was watching. Reid was deaf to his chamber's realities?  Then how did he manage to get all 60 Democrats to support a bill?  As for Pelosi, while the House bill was (in many areas, but not abortion) more liberal than the Senate bill, once again it was hardly a huge gap -- and the current negotiations over the final bill show, as Pelosi surely knew, that a bill without a bill closer to the Senate version was a tough vote for the Blue Dogs, anyway. 

Of course, even if the bill passes, it does not prove that Obama, Pelosi, or Reid made good choices throughout the process.  I think the Gang of Six delay worked to ensure the support of wavering Dems -- but reasonable people will differ about that one for a long time.  However, pols have to be judged against a realistic standard.  It was never realistic to imagine a bill could be on the president's desk in just a few months (December might have been realistic -- September was not).  It is not realistic to believe that a few more -- even many more -- presidential speeches could have had yielded a massive change in public opinion.  It is not realistic to believe that the House and Senate could have produced nearly identical bills.  It is not realistic to believe that Obama could have achieved the Democrats core goals (significant increases in coverage combined with insurance reforms) and received anything more than a handful of Republican votes. 

The truth is that this has been a tough fight because it is, at its core, a very important fight.  If the Democrats wind up winning, they will not have triumphed completely -- they had to compromise quite a few things liberals believe are important -- but it will be the most important liberal legislative victory in over forty years.  It is, again, baffling that anyone should think that it would have been much easier than it has been.


  1. Rothenburg is simply wrong, as near as I can tell. For a piece of MAJOR legislation like this, the House and Senate bills are actually remarkably similar.
    However, this is where I think the White House could have played a bigger role. Namely, once the bill was in the "hey, I'm the 60th vote, give me something!" stage (ie, Lieberman, Nelson, etc all trying to hint they needed to be bought off), the White House should have been in there to head those guys off. The 60th vote guys were doing that BECAUSE they knew it would pass; I think that's where the White House could have come in and made deals to put a bow on it and gotten that thing passed in early December/late November, and with much less squabbling over those silly little things

  2. Jonathan, in this week's New Yorker George Packer made a perhaps more substantive case regarding the ways and times in which Obama may have been too passive in this process. I think Obama did shape the bills to his priorities very effectively, but as he himself has suggested, he may have focused too exclusively on policy results and neglected the sales job, which includes exerting the right kinds of pressures on various blocs within his own party.

  3. Matt --

    Again, I suspect that we'll find out that the White House was very involved in cutting the deals with Holy Joe and the Benator -- but that they did it in such a way that Reid, and not Obama, took the fall from it. Of course, that's a guess, at this point...I do agree that they didn't seem to hurry things as much as they should have, even apart from Scott Brown.


    I haven't had a chance to read the Packer piece yet, but I can pass along that Nyhan didn't love it:

    On the larger point...maybe. Just keep in mind that it's always easy to second-guess, but we often assume that the things that went right had to go right, and that's not always the case.


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