Breakfast of Champion by Ryan Alexiev and Hank Willis Thomas
During his proverbial hundred days, Barack Obama played the hand he was dealt. Not since FDR had a president entered office with so many messes that had to be sorted out yesterday. As Bill Galston—political philosopher, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and one of the intellectual architects of Clintonism—put it, Obama took office tackling not just one agenda, the way they usually do, but two: “the agenda on which he campaigned and the agenda that events forced on him.”
Obama’s first actions—the stimulus bill, Timothy Geithner’s bank plan, the stabilization of GM and Chrysler—were all about the forced agenda: de-jitter the markets (the Dow is up modestly since the day he took office), and restore some measure of public confidence (so far so good, say the “right direction–wrong direction” polls).
Now comes the hard part, what he’s been saving his ammunition for. Obama’s second hundred days are much more important than the first. Now the president is pushing his agenda. And push is the word. Almost every day, there’s something: the credit-card bill, the call to overhaul regulation of derivatives, the deal on auto emissions … in normal times, any one of these (especially that last one, which Congress had failed to pull off for 30 years) would have been thought a huge deal.
But in the present context, they’re only the appetizers. The really grandiose stuff is coming toward us right now, and the moment is dramatic. What’s remarkable about it is that Democrats in Washington don’t merely hope that by September we’ll have a health-care bill and that climate-change legislation will be accomplished by November. The Obamans, with a confidence that borders on arrogance, expect it. The deals are being cut on the Hill right now. Summer, typically a lugubrious interlude in these parts, when lawmakers go home and lobbyists flee to Bethany Beach (our mini-Hamptons, and yes, go ahead and laugh), will this year find the BlackBerrys and iPhones blinking and buzzing ferociously as the theoretical trillions flit in and out of in-boxes and find their final resting place.
Lawmaking is never a pretty affair, but under these circumstances—an obdurate GOP, a shaky economy, some nervous red-state Democrats, liberals in full but-this-is-our-time regalia—it could get especially nasty. Summer will be no Summer of Love. Remember, push is the word. It’s the Summer of Shove.
On climate change, an important moment arrived in mid-May, when California’s Henry Waxman, the saber-wielding chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, shook hands with Rick Boucher of Virginia, a key coal-state Democrat, on emissions targets. And there’s a big climate-change conference in Copenhagen in December (Copenhagen will replace Kyoto in our lexicon), and The White House would surely like its delegation to arrive with a legislative package in hand. Hence November.
Health care is a bigger challenge. Teddy Roosevelt tried it out. Franklin proposed it. Then Harry Truman introduced it. Beaten, every one of them. LBJ wanted a universal-coverage system but settled for Medicare and Medicaid. Teddy Kennedy and others have been trying ever since. And, of course, there was that little situation back in 1993–94.
The Clinton failure looms large. It took health-care reform off the table for years. But the defeat carried this paradoxical silver lining: It forced every Democratic presidential candidate after Bill Clinton to draw up and promote a serious health-care plan. You will recall Hillary and Obama, during their endless debates last spring, getting awfully wonkorific on questions like the individual mandate. So Clinton’s loss—and the continuing crisis, as costs and the number of un- and underinsured have exploded—made the party more serious. “The landscape is dramatically different on health care today,” says the Democratic Leadership Council’s Bruce Reed, who was Clinton’s domestic-policy adviser at the time, “in part because of the experience of ’94.”
The things Obama learned from that experience had to do not with substance but with, as we say down here, “process.” First, he’s letting Congress take the lead here. The Clintons wrote a bill and told Congress to pass it. Congress famously bridled at this (recall Pat Moynihan’s irritation with Hillary, later patched up). The Obama White House’s thinking is, Let our friends in Congress do it; if it’s under their authorship, they’ll be more invested in its passage. Remember Mencken’s famous dictum that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public? The Washington version is that no one ever lost political capital overestimating the egos of legislators. Especially senators.
Second, the Obama people remember how Clinton was dragged to the left in his first days in office with “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” The occupants of this White House are having none of that.