the national interest

How Barack Obama Saved the Obama Administration

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Vote the man, not the party” is, in this day and age, just about the worst political advice you can offer. And not just because you might want to vote for a woman. Parties rule modern politics, and any points of differentiation between the candidate and the party are likely to be resolved in favor of the latter. As a candidate, Barack Obama differed from many Democrats in his (home-state-related) support for coal and disdain for the individual mandate. He reversed both. Grover Norquist endorsed this same accurate, cold-blooded, structuralist view of things when he told his Party in 2012, “We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget … Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.”

Accordingly, Obama’s record of legislative accomplishment in 2009 and 2010 owes an enormous debt to the simple fact that his Party controlled both houses of Congress (and the lack of legislative progress since then to the disappearance of his majority, rather than a lack of “leadership”). But Jonathan Bernstein goes farther, and argues that Obama has done no more or less than what any Democratic president in his circumstances would have done:

Any Democrat in 2009 would have sought a large stimulus package. Any Democrat in 2009 would have made health-care reform a key issue, and any Democrat who could have been nominated would have produced a health plan similar to the one Obama worked for. Any Democrat would have attempted to pass a cap-and-trade bill on climate change, and barring that, would have worked both legislatively, when possible, and administratively the rest of the time to address the issue.

Bernstein surely has a point about the stimulus. (Indeed, a more far-sighted president might have anticipated the prospect that the downturn was deeper than he knew at the time and built a stimulus capable of automatically expanding if unemployment remained high.) On the others, he is badly understating Obama’s role. So, at the risk of making the earnest version of this brilliant parody, let me explain why Barack Obama actually is the most powerful member of the Obama administration.

I know some people in the West Wing. Let me make some calls. Photo: Pete Souza/White House

The logic of Obama’s environmental regulations is fairly straightforward now. But it wasn’t straightforward before he announced them. Some extremely smart reporters and political analysts considered it doubtful (John Broder), or even vanishingly unlikely (Matthew Yglesias, Ryan Lizza) that Obama would actually regulate existing power-plants. If it was that obvious that Obama would use his regulatory authority this way, nobody would have believed otherwise. The decision obviously undertook some political risks that not any Democratic president would have unhesitatingly accepted.

On health care, the record of Obama’s personal influence is even stronger. It’s surely true that any Democratic president would have pursued health-care reform in 2009. But as the health-care bill dragged on, while it, Obama, and Democrats in Congress grew increasingly unpopular, many Democrats would have pulled the plug and tried to get out with a small, incremental bill. In late August of 2009, Jonathan Cohn later said in his deeply reported reconstruction of the bill’s passage that both Joe Biden and Rahm Emanuel wanted to pull the plug on comprehensive reform, but Obama overruled them.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The true moment of peril occurred in early 2010, when Scott Brown won a Massachusetts Senate race, depriving the Democrats of their ability to break a filibuster. At that point, probably most Democrats wanted to give up. As Cohn reported, “many administration officials assumed that health reform really was ‘Dead, DEAD DEAD,’ as one put it to me in an e-mail.” Emanuel again proposed abandoning comprehensive reform for a small, incremental measure. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, operating on the widespread assumption that comprehensive reform could not be resuscitated, argued, “Obama’s greatest mistake was failing to listen to Emanuel on health care … The president disregarded that strategy and sided with Capitol Hill liberals who hoped to ram a larger, less popular bill through Congress with Democratic votes only. The result was, as the world now knows, disastrous.” Even liberals like Anthony Weiner and Barney Frank wanted to throw in the towel. Now, the logic of passage was always clear to those who paid close attention to the legislative dynamics, but not everybody did. If Obama had given up on health care, most analysts in Washington — and even many Democrats — would have deemed it a sensible, or even perfectly obvious, decision.

On most issues, Obama simply used his power the way any member of his party would have. On climate and health care, he bucked significant pockets of intra-party disagreement — not about policy goals themselves, which the whole Party shared, but of the prudence of accepting political risk to achieve them. And these two episodes where Obama’s own intervention proved decisive happen to be the two largest pieces of his domestic legacy.