How Much Power Does Obama Have?
The calls to make Jon Cohn president -- he'll only be 47 in 2016! -- remind me of a post I wanted to write about our current president. Dan Froomkin, in his first missive at his new home, wrote that the final months of health-care reform will bring "our fuzzy president" into sharper focus. That's correct, I think. But it may be the opposite of what we need. Before I get all counterintuitive on you, though, here's Dan:
One possibility is that Obama, to everyone's surprise, will come out with a strong bill much like the one he promised his supporters during the campaign. It is conceivable, after all, that the reason Obama hasn't publicly issued ultimatums and twisted arms and busted heads is that he believes it's best to do those things in private -- and only when the time is truly ripe. In this scenario, which I call the Obama-as-community-organizer scenario, the community's needs are finally met, but in a way such that even those who had thwarted the people's will are allowed to save face.
The other possibility -- well, I call that one the Obama-as-pushover scenario. In this one, Obama will come out of it having given away the store -- having neither significantly improved the health-care system nor lowered its costs, but rather having created a new entitlement that primarily benefits the health insurance, pharmaceutical and hospital industries.
As Dan says, we've not yet seen Obama's negotiating style come into focus. But we will soon. That said, I don't know how many times a president has to fail to solve this problem before we admit that it's not a matter of presidential messaging, or toughness, or will, or strategy. FDR, Truman, Nixon, Carter and Clinton all took runs at this prize. All of them failed. And Lyndon Johnson went for Medicare and Medicaid because he was daunted by the challenge of comprehensive health-care reform.
The executive simply has limited power here. If the store gets given away, it's probably not because Obama didn't want any of the stuff in it. If a strong bill survives the process, it's probably not because Obama was just so irresistibly persuasive.
But either way, even the best of the bills on the table would simply be a partial fix for our coverage problem, not a root-and-branch reform of our wildly inefficient, fiscally destructive health-care system. Obama made those compromises because, on the one hand, the public is afraid of change, and on the other hand, the Congress is stocked with folks who will scare them further and do their best to block needed reforms, and on the third hand -- government is many-handed beast -- industry has a lot of money and a lot of clout.
Compared with the structural power of Congress to block legislative change, the tendency of the public to fear legislative change and the capacity of industry to fight legislative change, the president just isn't that powerful. A perfect performance by Obama may, in other words, not even be enough to pass an imperfect bill, much less a perfect bill. That goes for Cohn, too.
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