Barack Obama

Seeking to Avoid Clinton's Mistakes, Obama Makes New Ones

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Clive Crook has a characteristically smart column on the political troubles Obama has had with health-care reform:

Though politicians and commentators talk about the president's plan, he does not have one. Learning the lessons of "Hillarycare" far too well, Mr Obama has set out broad goals for reform and some principles to guide the design, but no more. This self-imposed distance is bad both substantively and politically. It is substantively bad because left to its own devices an unguided, disputatious, difference-splitting Congress was bound to make a hash of it. And it is politically bad because the public understands this.

As Ezra Klein noted last week, Obama's strategy on health-care reform has essentially been: "Figure out what Bill Clinton did. Do the opposite."

One of the things Clinton did was give Congress a lengthy, exceedingly detailed overhaul plan. As the body ostensibly in charge of writing legislation, however, Congress didn't take well to being told exactly what legislation to write and pass. Obama's approach has been to give Congress almost no direction whatsoever, letting them draw up a plan aimed toward universality of coverage. The president's only requirement was that it be paid for.

As a strategy for dealing with feisty personalities in Congress, this may have been savvy  (although recent Democratic infighting suggests a little more leadership from the party's most popular figure might have been useful). But as strategy for selling the plan to the public, it's had serious problems. Stories covering health-care reform have necessarily focused on process, which tends to drag down public support. And without backing a specific plan of his own, Obama has been unable to stand as firm as he might have on specific policies.

Beyond that, there's been a simple problem of trust. When Obama took office, his poll numbers were impressively high. The same could not be said for his fellow Democrats in Congress. By turning the reform process over to Congress, then, Obama left health-care in the hands of politicians the public does not particularly like or trust.

The result of the president's don't-do-what-Clinton-did strategy has been infighting amongst Democrats, widespread confusion about the various plans for reform, and declining public support—not only for reform, but for Obama. Rather than move Washington beyond politics, as he promised during last year's campaign, Obama, has, despite studied efforts to avoid the mistakes of predecessors, allowed the bickering and factionalism of political dealing to hijack his top legislative priority.

It may be somewhat unfair to blame Obama for this outcome. He was naive, certainly, but that's simply the way Washington works: It's magnetized toward pettiness and politics. But the takeaway, as far as I'm concerned, isn't, as Obama has continually suggested, that we need better politics or better government; instead, it's that we need less.

I wrote about declining support for a government-run insurance option here, and the "buy now, pay later" strategy employed by health-care reformers here. Jacob Sullum wrote about the unnecessarily high costs of reform here.


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  1. It may be somewhat unfair to blame Obama for this outcome.

    It is perfectly fair to blame Obama for this outcome.

  2. I think the problem here is that Obama, having run a successful campaign on vacuous generalities, thought they would be sufficient to govern with.

    The upcoming town hall season should be great fun, since I suspect many of the people at the town hall will know more about what’s in these bills than their legislators. Getcher popcorn ready!

  3. R C Dean

    here is a story on town hall meeting gone wild.

  4. If Obama wants to do the opposite, then he should privatize healthcare. Right?

  5. This is completely off-topic but too good to not share. Our VP explains…..something.

    “Less good is not good, but less good is better than worse,” said Biden. “When I say less good, I mean less bad.”

    http://www.chicagobreakingnews.com/2009/07/biden-says-stimulus-has-slowed-recession.html

  6. Rep Tom Bishop (D-NY) said, “There is no point in meeting with my constituents and [to] listen to them and have them listen to you if what is basically an unruly mob prevents you from having an intelligent conversation.”

    I think that translates to “Screw my constituents and what they want.”

  7. So,if you have a town hall meeting where the members of the town hall protest your representation of them……….you stop holding the meetings?? That’s some fine representating.

  8. I stnad by my barely literate sentiment. And I blame it on that fucking Joe Biden quote.

  9. Mississippi representatin’!

  10. “Rather than move Washington beyond politics, as he promised during last year’s campaign…”

    It’s nice to know he’s also breaking the promises that would actually help HIM.

  11. There is no point in meeting with my constituents and [to] listen to them and have them listen to you if what is basically an unruly mob prevents you from having an intelligent conversation.

    Sometimes, you arrogant prick, the angry mob is the message.

  12. Obama’s problem is that he, like other liberals, is convinced that the American people want, nay demand, universal coverage. The problem is, they don’t want it.* This is a lesson liberals have to learn for themselves, over and over again, the hard way, by losing. Call this the education of Barak Obama, Chapter 1.

    *What most Americans want is the coverage they have now, except cheaper and less paperwork. The current system is an absurd, jerrybuilt contraption, but it works, pretty much, for the middle class, the health care industry, and the insurance companies. But any attempt to bring “real change” to the current system will cause it to fall apart.

  13. Apologies for the threadjack I did upstream.

  14. Here’s Joe Klein on “How Special Interests Could Block Health Reform”.

    Special Interests are what liberals call the people when they disagree with them.

  15. Actually, I think he’s running into the same problem as HillaryCare – people like the idea of “healthcare reform,” but put forth a specific plan and people can see the actual costs involved and the support dwindles.

    Democrats keep fooling themselves into thinking that because the abstract idea polls well the concrete implementation will be equally popular and make the situation worse by pretenting that reform is a free lunch on the campaign trail, so that when the actual price tag comes expectations for it are unrealistically low. The tendency of the Democratics to defend “public option” plans as a step towards single payer among the base and in liberal policy mags then deny that they’re trying to lay the ground work for single payer when addressing the general public doesn’t help public skepticism of the plan either.

    The net result is preventing the passing of the uncontroversial stuff like reconciling the tax statuses of employer-based and individual insurance plans. Of course, actually fixing the problems that don’t require a massive new entitlement reduces the pressure for one, so we can look forward to the continuation of the simple tax policy quirk that’s responsible for several of the more obnoxious aspects of the US system until we get some kind of government ran healthcare despite a general concensus existing for decades that taxing the two differently is retarded.

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