Don’t blame Obama?

People keep referring me to Ross Douthat’s column, “Don’t Blame Obama”, which you should read if you haven’t already.

In reality, the health care wrestling match is less a test of Mr. Obama’s political genius than it is a test of the Democratic Party’s ability to govern…

If the Congressional Democrats can’t get a health care package through, it won’t prove that President Obama is a sellout or an incompetent. It will prove that Congress’s liberal leaders are lousy tacticians, and that its centrist deal-makers are deal-makers first, poll watchers second and loyal Democrats a distant third. And it will prove that the Democratic Party is institutionally incapable of delivering on its most significant promises.

It’s a good piece and as usual Ross says a lot I agree with, but a couple of things. That is a rather jaundiced assessment of the Blue Dogs, is it not? I can’t see that their objections to the bills are unprincipled. Their positions make sense to me. It is not wrong, either, for politicians to care about public opinion. We should  want them to do that. Are they failing in some way, as Ross implies, if they are “loyal Democrats a distant third”? I want parties to be institutionally capable of governing, but I don’t give politicians many points for tribal loyalty come what may. Coalitions are what make parties capable of governing. Leaders have to shape those coalitions.

Which leads me to my second point: why must one conclude that the health reform mess is Obama’s fault or else the party’s fault—choose one—when it is plainly both? The Democrats’ ability to govern has everything to do with the effectiveness of their leader and principal spokesman, especially on a sensitive issue, health care, where success requires a complicated policy to be put persuasively before the public. We know Obama has the necessary skills. We saw that last year. He chose not to deploy them, and put Democrats in Congress in charge. That was a big mistake.

It’s true that Democrats in Congress are split. So is the public at large. All the more reason why Obama needed to lead. In the campaign, he extended popular support for the party into the middle of the electorate. He needed to maintain or even build on that to advance his policy goals. So far, he hasn’t. He has managed to disappoint both the centre and the left, as Ross says. But the left is always disappointed. That is its perpetual state of mind. The left will be disappointed if in the end Obama gets universal health care with generous subsidies for the less well-off, but no public option. There is nothing one can say to this. But disappointing the centre as well was an unforced error. The Obama of the campaign could have kept the middle on board, but he decided—until it was too late to change his mind?—that he would not even try. Yes, he gets the blame for that.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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