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Posted by on Jan 21, 2010 in Health, Politics | 7 comments

Obama’s Silver Lining in Brown Win

Democrats were understandably glum after Scott Brown’s win over Martha Coakley in the special election for the unexpired US Senate term of the late Edward Kennedy. Brown could make life difficult for President Obama, who has made health care a centerpiece of his presidency.

But if I read Barack Obama correctly, he may just now be seeing a silver lining in Brown’s Massachusetts victory.

Consider Obama’s two most recent Democratic predecessors. Jimmy Carter went to Washington with Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. The sky seemed to be the limit for his post-Watergate, post-Vietnam administration. With his pedantic style and insistence on doing everything at once, while addressing every detail himself, Carter was often his own worst enemy. Coming a close second on an enemies list that might be drawn by a Carter observer, however, would be the Democratic Congress.

Dismissive of Carter as an outsider and a naif, congressional Democrats thwarted the Georgian so often that in post-presdiential years, Carter remarked accurately that he had better relations with conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill than with the Democrats there.

And of course, it was one of the most prominent of congressional Democrats, Ted Kennedy, who took the extraordinary step of mounting a major challenge to a sitting incumbent by running against Carter for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination. Carter likely would have lost to Ronald Reagan that fall anyway, owing to the Iran hostage crisis. But the nasty, costly internecine battle for the nomination and Kennedy’s refusal to lend legitimacy to his own party’s president at the national convention surely didn’t help Carter’s cause.

When he became president in 1993, Bill Clinton tried first to rally congressional Democrats around his health care program and found that process a bit like trying to corral smoke. On a host of other issues, a more liberal Democratic Congress was reticent to adopt Clinton’s “third way” approach, splitting the difference between ancient liberal orthodoxy and Reagan-influenced conservatism.

But, unlike what happened to Jimmy Carter, Clinton’s presidency was saved from congressional members of his own party–at least until he met Monica Lewinsky–in November, 1994, when Republicans, on the strength of their Contract with America, took control of the House of Representatives. Clinton’s State of the Union proclamation that “the era of big government” was through, may have been the political equivalent of a forced confession, but dealing with a GOP House also liberated the former head of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of Democratic moderates Clinton helped found, to pursue “third way” initiatives that would have died in a Democratic Congress.

During the second portion of his first term, Clinton signed welfare reform into law. Many liberal Democrats opposed it. But the US electorate, by and large, liked it. Only a Democratic president working with a Republican Congress could have achieved welfare reform.

Democrats losing the House in the 1994 midterm elections, freed Bill Clinton from adhering to the wishes of the Democrats in Congress, with their liberal orthodoxies, and helped ensure his re-election in 1996.

I believe that Obama can be similarly liberated by the results of Tuesday’s election in Massachusetts.

I also believe that he would like to be liberated from conventional liberal Democratic orthodoxy to pursue a more moderate course. There are several hints that this is the case: his cooperativeness with the Bush Administration in the bailout packages that, along with the economic stimulus passed at Obama’s initiative in early 2009, probably saved the economy from sliding into a depression; his retention of Robert Gates as defense secretary; his preference for finding compromise whenever possible; his admiration of Dwight Eisenhower and the shrewd Abraham Lincoln; and, most tellingly for what lies immediately ahead, his initial public positions on health care reform stating that, while he personally prefers a government-run insurance program, there may be other ways to get to the goal of insuring America’s 46-million uninsured citizens.

Because Bill and Hillary Clinton were seen as having attempted to dictate the provisions of the health care proposals advanced in the Clinton years, Obama didn’t want to be seen as doing the same thing this go-round. But, as often happens when past events leave a bad taste in people’s mouths, Obama overcompensated by enunciating a few principles and allowing members of his own party in Congress to tinker and pork barrel. As the process unfolded in all its messiness over extended months of debate, liberals in his party seized the opportunity to insist on their own particular version of big government/big interest group legislation. Meanwhile, the Republicans and others have had a field day, turning the President into a Rorschach blot on which they’ve painted an old-fashioned tax and spend liberal who wants to get into people’s personal lives. And those are the most complimentary versions of Obama they paint.

Now that the bluest of blue states has sent what seems like a very red Republican to the Senate, congressional Democrats are likely to walk lightly, happily deferring to the President to take the lead on where they go from here on health care reform. Mr. Obama can, if he desires, seize the initiative, inevitably bringing Democrats along with him in order to get something done and, at the very least, calling Republicans’ bluff, by challenging them to support a revised health care reform package, perhaps including tort reform, and which may, initially, be modest in scope, but establish an important prededent for the future, making health care coverage a priority of the federal government.

By exhibiting a balance between an uncompromising insistence that something be done to bring down health care costs and insuring more Americans on the one hand and a flexibility on specifics on the other hand, the President may not only bring along his own party, but cause some Republicans to back a new plan. In this, the President will have to be willing to accept half a loaf, which he seems temperamentally capable of doing.

There is precedent for this when it comes to a major new social policy initiative. In the second year of his presidency, with the Seventy-fourth Congress opening its session, Franklin Roosevelt said that first among the things he wanted to accomplish “was a comprehensive social insurance program that would provide unemployment compensation and old-age and survivor benefits, as well as aid for dependent children and the handicapped.” This was how Roosevelt conceived of what would become Social Security. He appointed a special cabinet committee to draft the legislation and told them to “keep it simple, so simple everybody will understand it.” Legislation passed and Social Security was enacted. But, says Roosevelt biographer, Jean Edward Smith:

The Social Security Act of 1935 was far from perfect. Despite Roosevelt’s desire for universal coverage, only 60 percent of the labor force was initially insured. Farm laborers and domestics–two categories of workers who needed security most–were not covered, nor were teachers, nurses, and those who worked in firms employing fewer than ten people…Nevertheless, passage of the act marked a watershed in American history. The responsibility of the nation toward its citizens was redefined…

Today, though Social Security doesn’t yet encompass provisions for health care and for housing that Franklin Roosevelt envisioned, it is an unquestioned third rail of American political life, covering the entire work force. But would Social Security, which was initially deflationary when it passed during the Great Depression, have come into being had Roosevelt insisted on 100% coverage of workers, along with every aspect of it as originally envisioned and presented? The answer is no.

If President Obama is shrewd, he will exploit this moment and get the health care reform he can get now. He will work to get a simpler health care reform package that everyone can understand through Congress. And my bet is that he will calculate that having come this far, he must pass something and that getting something like 60% of the country’s uninsured covered is better than leaving none of them insured.

Contrary to what some are saying right now, by shaking Congressional Democrats off his back, Obama could achieve a big victory with a new, simpler health care reform package. If the President hasn’t put in some calls to Olympia Snowe by now, he should get on it soon.

This is his chance and he needs to seize it if he’s serious about health care.

[This is not being crossposted at my personal blog.]

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