Earlier this week, Andrew Sullivan published a round up of reader reactions to what happened in Massachusetts. This excerpt, from a Canadian reader’s comment, stuck with me …
I cannot understand how the American public can forget the Republican record so quickly. We all knew that the Democrats would not govern perfectly, but how can a president that won such a landslide only a year ago receive such a short time to prove his ability to govern?
Ditto that question, I thought at the time. Today, David Brooks offers an answer …
Instead of building trust in government, the Democrats have magnified distrust. The country already believed Washington is out of touch with its core concerns. So while most families were concerned about jobs, Democrats in Washington spent nine months arguing about health care. The country was already tired of self-serving back-room deals, so the Democrats negotiated a series of dirty deals with the pharmaceutical industry, the unions and certain senators. Americans already felt Washington doesn’t understand their fears and insecurities. So at the moment when economic insecurity was at its peak, the Democrats in Washington added another layer of insecurity by threatening to change everything at once.
You can argue that Brooks’ answer is more about Congress than Obama. But Obama deferred much to Congress during his first year. And when a President does that — even if it’s the right thing to do, the Constitution-honoring thing to do — he can be boosted or burned by the result. Obama was clearly burned. Of course, he was not entirely passive in the process; he was the one, after all, who sought a sweeping, transformational, FDR-ish moment in health care reform, despite the fact that we have clearly become a country no longer capable of dealing rationally or patiently with the prospect of sweeping, transformational, FDR-ish reform.
I read this week — somewhere, though I can no longer find the source; maybe a reader can help — that Bill Clinton said he wished he had first tackled welfare reform, to build up his fiscal-sanity credentials, before he tackled health care reform. That seems consistent with Brooks’ larger point, namely: In anxious times, Presidents (and Members of Congress) should move cautiously: calm people’s tattered nerves, seek incremental change.
Granted, facing the prospect of the next Great Depression, Obama couldn’t afford to be an incrementalist on everything. The stimulus bill had to happen; and despite its detractors, it clearly helped. However, what’s equally clear, is that the stimulus bill (coupled with the auto industry bailouts) was the only sweeping change (set of changes) a majority of the American people were going to tolerate. Yes, hindsight is 20-20, but you have to wonder how much better off Obama and the Democrats would have been if — at that point, post-stimulus, post-auto-bailouts — they had slow-rolled other reforms and focused more of their attention on pushing bipartisan deficit commissions and the like. Big change followed by calming, shore-up-the-foundation measures.
Granted, Republican leaders might have still complained, but this really isn’t about them. It’s about the American electorate, which is not predominantly progressive or conservative, but (understandably) confused and concerned; wanting help but not too much of it from Washington.
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted transformational change on health care. I still do. My wife told me the story this week of a high school classmate with whom she recently re-connected. The woman’s husband had been downsized in the wake of InBev’s take-over of Anheuser-Bush; as a result, the family lost their health insurance. Looking to replace their employer-provided insurance with their own family policy, they have now been rejected — not once, not twice, but repeatedly. And for what reason? Pre-existing conditions. To make matters worse, while those conditions might have been pre-existing, they were apparently not recurring; they were relics of years-ago ails and accidents that had not been repeated. Is this now the new, reigning definition of “pre-existing”? Anything that ever happened in your past that might conceivably happen again?
Such stories scare the hell out of me; they should scare the hell out of all us. But despite that fear, we have to come to terms with the fact that transformational change on health care (maybe on all issues) is probably not going to happen, not for awhile at least, no matter how much cheerleading/scolding is done by Paul Krugman, Andrew Sullivan, et. al.
The days of FDR’s New Deal and JFK’s Race to the Moon are gone. It’s time to deal with this reality and get creative, asking and answering what sequence of smaller steps might be taken in a nation deeply and perhaps permanently conditioned to prefer incremental change.