By passing health care reform, the president has become a transformational leader, although not a post-partisan one.
By Gil Troy, The Mark, 3-26-10
A great orator I know once told me that there are three versions of every speech – the one you plan, the one you actually deliver, and the one you wish you delivered. Similarly, there are three presidencies – the one the candidate promises, the one that actually takes place, and the one the president, partisans, and historians argue about for decades to come. With the passage of his historic health care bill, President Barack Obama both fulfilled and moved beyond the presidency he promised, shaped his administration indelibly as liberal and social activist, and secured his place in history.
To pass this legislation, Obama had to break the vow that had defined him politically and helped launch him into the White House. He failed to become the post-partisan, red and blue together healer he hoped to be; what the American people elected him to be. But he did fulfill the promise he made in January 2008 to be a “transformational” leader. At the time, he offended his rival Hillary Clinton and many other Democrats by saying bluntly that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, that Bill Clinton did not,” and that Reagan “put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.”
Barack Obama has bet his entire political future on the assumption that America is ready for the change he just shoved through Congress. And make no mistake about it, he had to push and shove, scratch and claw to achieve his victory. Obama was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the Clinton health care debacle of 1993 and 1994. Rather than sending a bill from the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill, Obama let Congressional Democrats mostly define the bill.
The downside of this approach is that the health care bill did not get even one Republican vote in the House of Representatives on Sunday, a devastating comment on the state of partisanship today. This marks a dramatic drop from the bipartisan high of election night 2008 and from the usual American standard for passing historic legislation. Both Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Social Security reform and Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare reform enjoyed substantial bipartisan support. The upside is that Obama has a major victory, despite having been counted out just a few weeks ago, when the Republican unknown Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate seat Democrats assumed was theirs because the late Senator Ted Kennedy had sat in it for so long.
Power is like a muscle – the more it is exercised, the more it grows. Obama’s victory will make him stronger, and will bring the nation closer to him. The Republican fear, of course, is that Obama’s nation is an abomination. Obama does not have enough time to prove them wrong when it comes to health care. Even he admits that the investment demanded by the legislation will take years to pay off. But he can win the larger debate, at least in the short term, if he applies the same determination and vision he recently demonstrated to the defining challenge of his administration – producing jobs, jobs, and more jobs for the millions of Americans suffering from unemployment thanks to the great crash of 2008.
The health care fight highlighted Americans’ continuing ambivalence about big government. There is a strong anti-government, “don’t tread on me” tradition in the United States. Not everyone who objected was a crazed, Fox News-watching, Rush Limbaugh-listening, Tea Party-attending extremist. Moreover, the fight over abortion reflected another fear, namely, that government funding of certain procedures reflects government approval of certain actions. The controversy highlights the high stakes involved.
While the Republicans immediately called for a repeal, history would suggest that these efforts are doomed. The forward momentum of the American social welfare state – like the Canadian one – is hard to stop. Even during the so-called “Reagan revolution,” there was no major rollback of core social services, despite all the rhetoric.
The great health care debate of 2009 is now evolving into the great health care victory of 2010. Already, the glowing editorials suggest that Barack Obama has restored some of the glow to his presidency. He is also well on his way to earning the compliment one of my students gave recently to Lyndon Johnson: “He is the most Canadian American president I can think of.”