In his New York magazine column, “How Barack Obama Saved the Obama Administration,” Jonathan Chait takes on the meme Republicans (and some Dems) are parroting about President Obama being an ineffectual chief executive, particularly with respect to health care and environmental protection.Conceding that Obama probably could have pressed for a bolder stimulus, Chait argues that Obama’s grit, (along with his congressional majority early in his term) is pivotal reason why we have health care reform and progress on environmental protection.
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.
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.
Chait concludes that “On most issues, Obama simply used his power the way any member of his party would have.” However, “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. Not coincidentally, suggests Chait, “these two episodes where Obama’s own intervention proved decisive happen to be the two largest pieces of his domestic legacy.”