The Triumph of the Will (Wilkinson)


Will Wilkinson gets the sputterning, sneering Paul Krugman—arguably the leader of the left's pass-the-damn-bill crowd—exactly right:

Krugman believes in his bleeding heart of hearts that his furious white-hot laserbeam rhetoric at its maximum amplitude can induce a microstroke in the brain of an enemy from distances of up to seven-hundred miles. Just imagine what he imagines the President can do! Vaporize an armada with a whim? Suspend gravity within a square-mile? But Obama need do so little–merely to tell House Democrats to pass the Senate bill. He's THE PRESIDENT, for chrissake. If only he would tell them what they NEED to be told, instantly waffling Dems will become a zombie army able only to lurch to their doom. But, no. Obama will let his puppets be real boys and do what they like.

Obama: Not actually a superhero.

There's a great not-for-kids comic book series from the 90s called Preacher, about a guy who, after bonding with the superpowered spawn of an angel and a demon, can speak with the voice of God: Anyone who listens must obey.

Listening to progressives complain about Obama's failure to intercede in Congress during the health care reform fight, and his unwillingness to command them to move ahead with a vote for it now that it's flailing, I get the sense that they imagine Obama operating in a similar fashion (albeit without the whole supernatural-powers-bestowed-by-a-freak-merging-of-heaven-and-hell business).

But as anyone who's taken an elementary school civics class ought to remember, it's Congress that makes laws. The president obviously has a significant amount of influence, but expecting him to be able to speak his will into existence, superhero style, is the sort of absurdity likely to make Gene Healy's hair burst into flames. Just because a president, or his supporters, want something doesn't mean that it's possible to get. Even if they want it really, really badly. During the Bush era, liberals frequently mocked conservatives who claimed that America need only muster the will to finish and win the Iraq war—as if national will was some sort of fuel a country's military could rely upon. Well, the same is true of presidential will.

Krugman might respond that this is different, because in this case, the procedure to pass health care reform exists! The problem, though, is that the votes don't. And no amount of cajoling presidential melifluence is likely to bring them into existence.

Indeed, I'd say Obama, in choosing a hands-off strategy, was likely far more effective than if he'd been up in Congress' grill: Remember that when Bill Clinton took office, he also tried to overhaul the U.S. health care system. But rather than give Congress a broad target (in this case, universal coverage and deficit reduction) and tell them to come up with a solution, he handed them a detailed plan and micromanaged the process. The bill never even came to a floor vote.

Obama's strategy was risky, but it pushed liberal health care reforms further than they've ever gone before. If I were a diehard health-reform supporter like Paul Krugman, I'd be thanking Obama for a year of dicey, difficult work. But instead, Krugman's complaining that Obama hasn't done enough. It's revealing, I think, about the ultra-broad view Krugman and other folks of his political persuasion take of the scope and power of the federal government; but the fact is, there are limits—even for Obama.