Why the Media is Responsible For Obama’s Flip-Flops

by Brien Jackson

Ezra had a post this morning examining the fact that the bill likely to pass the Senate looks very much like the plan Obama ran on, with some exceptions, to which Marcy Wheeler responded by noting that the exceptions were fairly important. I think Wheeler is exaggerating the effect a little bit, after all, the bill is very large, and has hundreds of moving parts, so all things considered less than 10 things isn’t that much, but I do think she’s right to point out that they’re fairly important things, and they are largely the things that people are focusing on, some with more merit than others (that the excise tax on high cost insurance plans has drawn any criticism from the left is extremely depressing). Ezra had a fairly nice response, noting that Obama basically came around to the consensus of Democratic opinion on the matter:

Another way of saying this is that president is a follower who leads. Take health-care reform. Marcy Wheeler doesn’t agree with me that the reform bill we’re likely to pass is similar to the reform proposal that Obama campaigned on. She emphasizes the differences between the two, but consider for a second the size of those differences. Obama proposed, at least on the coverage side, a Massachusetts-style structure. So too did John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. The difference was that Obama initially fought the individual mandate.

In the end, he ended up supporting a … Massachusetts-style structure with an individual mandate. In other words, he moved from the Massachusetts-plan with one real variation to the Massachusetts-plan — towards the consensus, not away from it. The move wasn’t to Medicare for All, or a Clintonian managed care within managed competition, or Wyden-Bennett, or some approach that Obama dreamed up in consultation with Peter Orszag and Tom Daschle. It was just the consensus campaign approach with some concessions to the realities of the policy and the demands of Congress. Wheeler may think that’s a lot of movement. I’m surprised by how little of a stamp Obama chose to put on this policy, particularly given the work that past presidents, like Clinton, have put into developing an approach that is uniquely theirs.

I think Ezra’s on to something, and it is good to point out that there are some unique features to healthcare reform relating to the fact that so many center-left and leftist types have been chasing that goose for so long. Barack Obama is a politician who has been on the national scene for all of 5 years, but he’s surrounded by people who have been in Washington thinking about healthcar reform for twenty years, give or take. And some of those people are in Congress (I’m looking at you John Dingell). The Democratic Party’s committment to universal healthcare goes back to before Obama was even born. It is, in other words, a fairly odd situation at the intersection of party and issue, and Obama is in the odd position of being a President who, to a large degree, is simply overshadowed by the achievement itself, but to an even larger degree, he’s walking into a governing situation where a lot of key players in Congress have spent a long time working on this issue, and aren’t necessarily inclined to suddenly cede ground to the White House on putting the bill together, particularly a President who is as new on the scene as Obama. Allowing Congress to take the lead on the bill was probably a smart move, if for no other reason than Congressional Democrats probably weren’t going to allow the situation to play out any differently.

Another way of looking at it is outlined by Matt Yglesias:

I think that most people vastly overrate the President’s ability to influence this kind of thing. But one reason that people overrate it is that presidential candidates encourage unrealistic expectations. Obama didn’t canvass the country saying “I will use my agenda-setting powers to encourage congress to take up comprehensive health reform and then meekly accept whatever the 60th-most-liberal senator is willing to agree to.” Primary candidates competed with one another to offer the most aggressively sound climate change plans instead of acknowledge that this was all wishful thinking and congress would constrain the limits of the possible. Obama in particular encouraged the idea that he could and would deploy his undeniable skills at set-piece speech delivery to cause legislative action.

I’ve made the point for some time that the way we act as though Congress simply doesn’t exist, with pretty much every candidate declaring that, “when I’m President, we’re going to get…” obscuring the broader point that these things have to go through Congress, clear the filibuster in the Senate, and so on. And while Matt frames this as the fault of candidates, I don’t really think it is, and all else being equal I think legitimate candidate, anyway, would very much like a campaign that was more reflective of the systemic reality. Rather, I think the problem is pretty much exactly what you see playing out right now; voters want a Presiddent to “lead,” and acknowledging the primacy of Congress doesn’t seem much like leading, especially since most Americans generally don’t much like Congress. So as long as a certain number seemingly legitimate candidates are willing to play along, everyone else is basically forced into the game as well. I mean, imagine the reaction John McCain would have gotten if instead of putting out policy white papers or trying to discuss healthcare or climate matters with Barack Obama he just acknowledged that it was highly unlikely he would be able to pass anything with a Democratic Congress. And that, I think, is te fault of a political media who, largely ignorant of the way American government works, plays along with the charade instead of putting on the brakes and trying to inform their viewers, because arguments between Presidential candidates that are presented as being crucial make for better television I guess.