Obamacare and US power

The Democrats’ healthcare victory has set some large political forces in motion. Gideon Rachman rightly points out that the implications extend beyond the United States.

Increasingly Mr Obama was portrayed overseas as weak, indecisive and ineffective. That is now likely to change–at least for a while–in the wake of the passage of healthcare reform. As a result, Mr Obama now has a chance to relaunch his presidency, abroad as well as at home…

Gideon argues that Obama can no longer be dismissed as all talk. The healthcare triumph makes him look like a winner not a loser. It makes him look tenacious and determined. He might start to get more respect from foreign leaders, commensurate with his popularity among ordinary folk. And there might be a pay-off in terms of his country’s image abroad.

By committing his nation to providing healthcare for nearly everyone, Mr Obama will undermine the Michael Moore vision of America as a country where big business ruthlessly exploits the downtrodden poor. This is a cartoon version of the US that is wildly popular in Europe and around the world. It will be harder to propagate in the wake of the passage of Mr Obama’s healthcare reforms.

I agree. All that seems plausible. But there are some countervailing tendencies.

I think Max Boot is also right to suggest that the fiscal implications of healthcare reform are likely to put a growing strain on US military spending. Gideon rightly says that healthcare reform makes the US a bit more like Europe: Max Boot says this might be true in more ways than one.

When Europeans after World War II chose to skimp on defense and spend lavishly on social welfare, they abdicated their claims to great power status. That worked out well for them because their security was subsidized by the U.S.

But what happens if the U.S. switches spending from defense to social welfare? Who will protect what used to be known as the “Free World”? Who will police the sea lanes, stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, combat terrorism, respond to genocide and other unconscionable human rights violations, and deter rogue states from aggression? Those are all responsibilities currently performed by America. But it will be increasingly hard to be globocop and nanny state at the same time. Something will have to give.

Recall that when Obama’s budget proposed curbs on public spending, the White House wanted the limits to apply to non-defence discretionary spending–and many Democrats objected to the exemption for the military. Looking ahead, two forces might therefore tend to diminish US military power. One is that resources will be squeezed by a bigger commitment to public spending on health. The other is that a more confident and re-energised Democratic party might try harder to adjust national priorities–meaning less spending on defence by choice, even if the fiscal implications of healthcare reform turn out not to demand it.

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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