Yes, we can … but so far, Obama hasn’t
December 26, 2009 – 12:00AM
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Less than 12 months into his presidency, Barack Obama is confronting an excruciating paradox. He is on the brink of being the first US president to deliver comprehensive reform of America’s health-care system, a radical change for which he clearly had a mandate, and yet his popularity with voters has plummeted. He is increasingly regarded with either disappointment or downright distaste by legions of supporters who this time last year were still bathed in the euphoria of “yes we can”.
What has gone wrong?
The past 11 months have been marked by Obama’s seeming timidity, his vacillation (particularly the very public attenuated policy review process about whether to send more troops to Afghanistan) and his failure to stand up and tell people what it is he wants. (He has never articulated a precise description of the bottom-line requirements of the health-care plan he wants).
In other words, he has failed to lead.
This has surprised and infuriated his friends, has already led to significant defections among media outlets for whom last year he could do or say no wrong and, in what is now Obama’s biggest political headache, has given a new-found energy to his opponents.
The Republicans have, in the words of Sarah Palin, gone rogue.
We (in the rest of the world) watched astounded as the health-care reform debate at the community level turned into screaming matches about “death panels”, saw ordinary citizens carrying guns to town hall meetings attended by Democratic members of Congress and heard what (to us) sounded like incomprehensible anguish about the prospect of “socialised medicine”.
Then it moved to Congress, where the Democrats’ ability to stop a Republican filibuster in the Senate is dependent on the vote of the turncoat senator from Connecticut Joe Lieberman, who – incredibly – was the Democrats’ candidate for vice-president in 2000 but who now must be known as the man who killed the public option (the government-run insurance agency that, like Medicare in Australia, was supposed to put a brake on the premiums charged by private insurance companies).
Lieberman’s price was extracted within the context of a political contest so bruising that some are asking if Washington politics will ever recover.
The filibuster was once a tool used so rarely that it underscored the gravity of the dissent. Today, according to Paul Krugman in a recent column, Republicans routinely threaten a filibuster on almost 70 per of significant legislation. This of course plays havoc with the legislative timetable, which is why the main Senate vote on the health-care bill took place at one o’clock on a Monday morning.
But also unprecedented was the Republicans’ attempted filibuster of the Defence Department budget, so that the Pentagon was on the verge of running out of funds for the wars in Iran and Afghanistan, to delay the health-care bill.
But even worse was the action of the Republican senator Tom Coburn, who went into the chamber hours before the final vote asking for prayers that a Democrat would not make it to the 1am vote, a clear reference to the ailing 92-year-old senator Robert Byrd, who nevertheless braved the massive snow storm in his wheelchair to be there for the landmark vote.
The politics of health care have been a torrid example of “the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics … our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem”.
“What’s needed is a broad majority of Americans – Democrats, Republicans and independents of goodwill – who are re-engaged in the project of national renewal, and who see their self-interest as inextricably linked to the interests of others.”
That was the prescription of Senator Barack Obama, writing in The Audacity of Hope, his international bestseller, just three years ago. That was also the stirring message of candidate Obama on the campaign trail throughout last year as he went to head-to-head against Hillary Clinton and convinced millions of Americans that, despite – in fact, because of – his lack of experience in Washington, he would change politics, end the crippling power of special interests and govern for those who had been shut out of the system.
On election day 69,456,897 Americans voted for Obama, giving him 52.92 per cent of a vote that was itself a huge increase in turnout. The world was in awe that America could do such a thing, and millions dared to hope that things would be different.
On January 21, the day after his inauguration as America’s 44th President, Obama had a Presidential Approval Index rating of 28. This rating, conducted by the polling organisation Rasmussen Reports, is calculated by subtracting the percentage of those who strongly disapprove of the President’s performance (16 per cent) from those who strongly approve (44 per cent).
Eleven months later, on December 21, Obama’s rating had slumped to -17, with just 26 per cent of Americans strongly approving and 43 per cent strongly disapproving. This is, Rasmussen Reports stated that day, “the highest level of strong disapproval yet recorded for this president. It comes as the Senate is preparing to pass health-care reform legislation initiated by the President and opposed by most voters. That latest tracking shows that 41 per cent support the health-care legislation and 55 per cent are opposed.”
Only 19 per cent of Americans strongly support the legislation. Yet it is an extraordinary achievement. It is one of the most significant domestic reforms since the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 legislation that created Medicare and Medicaid to provide health care for older and less well-off Americans. It is something that Bill Clinton failed to do. It is something Senator Edward Kennedy spent a lifetime trying to make happen.
The final provisions of the legislation will not be known until the Senate and House bills are reconciled, but the overriding reality is there will now be affordable health insurance for most Americans, insurance companies will no longer be able to cap coverage, cancel it for people with chronic illnesses or deny cover to people with pre-existing conditions. Yet instead of standing proud, Obama is on the defensive. Rather than hold aloft his historic accomplishment, he is nitpicking, challenging critics to identify the differences between what he campaigned on and the (more or less) final outcome.
Part of Obama’s problem has been that expectations were impossibly high. He was never going to be able to deliver the transformation of American politics that many voters thought he was promising. If you looked at his brief record in the US Senate and his rather longer time in the Illinois state senate, his record revealed a consensus politician, a man who compromised. “Yes we can” was a galvanising call to arms but it had no manifesto attached.
Now, 11 months into his presidency, he is encased in crises. The economy is still stagnant, Wall Street is recalcitrant, Iraq is refusing to become a nice peaceful little dempocracy, climate change will be the next bruising fight in Congress and Afghanistan is now Obama’s war. And no one believes the surge will be temporary.
Obama himself looks tired. His rhetoric no longer soars. In Copenhagen he did not sound as if he was even trying. In September he had said, of climate change: “Our generation’s response to this challenge will be judged by history, for if we fail to meet it – boldly, swiftly, and together – we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe.”
There was nothing bold about his performance in Denmark, although it could be called swift. He came empty-handed (in terms of offering reduced emissions), was gobsmackingly humiliated by the Chinese and left, spending just 18 hours at the conference. And there was no togetherness. The so-called Copenhagen Accord was hammered out behind closed doors by a small group of admittedly very high-powered nations, but they did not include a single European country, while the plenary was left in the dark.
To add insult, Obama briefed American journalists – live to network television – on details of the deal that had yet to be put to the conference.
He has given himself a “good, solid B-plus” for his first 11 months in office. He chose Oprah Winfrey rather than, say, The New York Times, to disclose this assessment. Obama told the TV host he deserved the rating for getting the economy on track, winding down the Iraq war and for making the right call for a temporary surge in Afghanistan. If health care reform passed,he said, he would deserve an A-minus.
The shame is that, even as he pulls off the greatest domestic reform in more than four decades, less than half the country supports him.
He will to have to project himself more forcefully, manage expectations, get control of the political agenda, articulate his vision; in short, lead, if he is not to be a one-term president.
Peter Hartcher is on leave.