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Obama Lost, Obama Found

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It’s fair to surmise that the GOP was destined to wind up pounding on Obama with a sledgehammer no matter how he conducted himself. But it was the president, after all, who had made the abatement of hoary ideological divisions an animating theme of his campaign. “By handing over the stimulus to Congress, he determined that post-partisanship would be tonal and not substantive,” says Galston. “And that’s fine. It was a clean choice. But it was a choice with consequences. It set the tone for what we now have.” Which is to say, a degree and intensity of polarization even greater than what obtained before Obama’s ascendancy.

But the most damaging consequence of all may have been inside the White House, where bullishness about how rapidly the stimulus would kick in led to foolish projections that unemployment would peak at 8 percent—and where the bill’s passage bred a certain cockiness and complacency about the need to drive a sustained economic message in the months thereafter. “I recently talked to a very senior friend of mine in the White House, and I said, ‘How did we not spend a year talking about the economy?’ ” a Democratic think-tank maven recalls. “And he said, ‘Look, I think Barack did the stimulus and he thought he checked the box and he moved on.’ I said, ‘That’s not governing, dude. That’s some other thing.’ ”

To date, the verdict of the public on the stimulus has been rather different from the one rendered by the professionals. According to a recent Rasmussen Reports poll, only a third of likely voters believe that the package has helped the economy. And together with the bank and auto bailouts, it left the impression of an administration enamored of both Big Business and Big Government—arguably the worst image conceivable for a spanking-new Democratic administration at a time when populist passions are running hot.

With all these economic initiatives, Team Obama raced ahead to stem what it saw (correctly) as metastasizing crises. Its efforts were driven by idealism and an apt sense of urgency, but they were also marked by a combination of hubris, naïveté, and an airy inattention to the politics that proved harmful to the cause—and that would be repeated to even worse effect when it came to the much bigger enchilada that Obama spent the rest of the year attempting to get Congress to digest.

“What is missing is the theory of the case.”

Unlike the stimulus, which in principle was seen as necessary by virtually every Democrat, health care was a war of choice—and one that any number of legislators in Obama’s party counseled him to avoid, at least in his first year. Instead, they advised him to take on energy or education, or to maintain a laserlike focus on the economy. “They should have done something where the preexisting common ground was much greater,” argues a centrist Democratic senator. “Health care for all has been a cherished ideal of our party forever, but getting there was always going to be a quagmire.”

The White House’s approach to keeping health care from turning into a tar baby was identical to how it tackled the stimulus: a strategy of congressional deference. Once again, the plan was masterminded by Emanuel and called for the administration to enunciate broad principles—expanding coverage, bending the cost curve, not increasing the deficit—but leave drafting the mega-bill to the barons on the Hill.

The standard knock on this strategy has come from leftier congressmen, such as New York’s Anthony Weiner, who ardently favor a strong public option and have been irked that Obama has failed to put his finger more forcefully on the scale in favor of that proposal. Their complaint has been straightforward: that the White House has been more interested in passing something, anything, no matter how ineffectual, that could be labeled reform than in making sound policy. “There’s a certain Rahmian sense that all they really want is to put the win on the board,” says Weiner. “Their essential view has been, ‘Whatever has the votes, we like.’ ”

Emanuel’s response to such critiques has been blunt: Yes, and your point is? “Let’s be honest,” he recently told the Times. “The goal isn’t to see whether I can pass this through the executive board of the Brookings Institution. I’m passing it through the United States Congress … I’m sure there are a lot of people sitting in the shade at the Aspen Institute …  who will tell you what the ideal plan is. Great, fascinating.”

Beneath Emanuel’s amusing back-of-the-handism is a serious point, and no small amount of history. Shaping his modus vivendi on health care all along has been the searing memory of what happened when the Clinton administration took an our-way-or-the highway approach to reform. By delegating the heavy lifting to the Hill, Emanuel was wagering that the House and Senate would have more skin in the game and hence be more likely to make progress. And that any of the policy options that might be enacted would represent an enormous improvement on the status quo. In short, Emanuel, and by extension Obama, was adhering to the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, who was fond of saying, “My policy is to have no policy.”


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