Barack Obama is a nice man, with rare charm and humour. Anyone who
doubts that should see the picture of him reading to a White House
children's party from Where the Wild Things Are.
He is a shrewd and daring politician. If he wasn't, he wouldn't now be
in the White House. He is a thrilling speaker. Listen to any of his
set-piece speeches, from Philadelphia to Denver, and from Berlin to Cairo.Tens of millions of Americans desperately want him to succeed. So do perhaps even more people elsewhere.
But is he an effective president? Will he be a successful one? We are coming up to the time when that will be decided.
In a few days, he will have been president
for six months. That's not a long time, just the beginning of what
should be a long march of eight years. But this is the moment when both
his friends and his enemies will look at what he has done and what he
has tried to do, what he has begun badly, and what he has begun well.
The political context
The president is reported by a leading columnist to have said something
typically intelligent, and characteristically both cautious and
enigmatic: that he would rather have seventy votes in the Senate for
85% of what he wanted than fifty-two voters for 100% (see David Broder,
The ‘Rock' in Health Reform, Washington Post, 11 June 2009).
What Obama probably meant is that he wants to pass legislation that
will have enough cross-party backing to be secure against future
reversal. That is all of a piece with Obama's general bipartisan
approach. It is arguable, though, that it sounds wiser than it is. Bill
Clinton's administration, after all, fell short of expectations, its
own and others', at least in part because of an excessive readiness to
"triangulate", a polite way of saying compromise.
There is so much emphasis on the personality of the president in the
way American politics is perceived, and not least with this president,
that it is easy to forget that Obama's political reputation, and
therefore his effectiveness, is far more in the hands of Congress than
might appear. Obama is a Democrat. The Democrats have a majority in
both houses of Congress. So why can't he get whatever he wants?
That is not how it works. A president brings a stock of political
capital with him to the White House. Then he trades with it. If he is
skilful, and lucky, he conserves his original capital, and even adds to
it. Especially, if he trades with the Congress.
Since the comedian Al Franken was finally
declared the winner of a super-close election in Minnesota, the
Democrats now (in theory) have sixty votes out of 100 in the Senate.
That should, (in theory) gives the president sixty votes there, and
sixty votes are needed for closure, to end debate and pass a bill.
In practice, the Democrats will find it hard to clear that threshold.
They will pick up some liberal Republican votes on major issues like
healthcare reform and climate change. But Edward Kennedy of
Massachusetts is desperately ill with a brain tumour. Robert Byrd of
West Virginia is not well, at 91. Joe Lieberman of Kentucky is a
Republican in all but name.
There are other independent-minded, usually conservative Democrats like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
She voted for the oil interests on drilling on wildlife reserves in
Alaska. On the other wing of the party there are more progressive
senators who might balk if they felt the president and the Democratic
leadership in the Senate were too timid and vote against what they saw
as unnecessary compromises.
Harry Reid, the Nevada
senator who is the Democratic majority leader, understands this very
well. "We have sixty votes on paper", said Senator Reid after he
learned that Franken had finally made it. "But we cannot bulldoze
anybody; it doesn't work that way. My caucus doesn't allow it. And we
have a very diverse group of senators philosophically."
Exactly. The other thing that cannot be forgotten is that senators, and
congressmen, are confronted with a baffling array of votes on every
subject you can think of, studded with "earmarks" and sundry special
favours, for their own constituents and for the constituents of other
legislators who might be available to vote for a pet project of their
own. They, too, are traders.
If we look just at domestic issues – and I propose to look at the
president's international record and prospects in a second article next
week – there are three key areas on which he can and must be judged.
They are the economic crisis, healthcare and climate change.
The numbers game
The first key area is Barack Obama's handling of the financial and
economic crisis he had to deal with even before he was inaugurated.
Immediate disaster was prevented. But great damage was done, and the
Obama administration cannot truly claim either to have prevented a recurrence of the crisis, or to have healed the harm.
In spite of the administration's huge expenditure and guarantees and
all its efforts to reassure the public, the banks' books are still
stuffed with toxic assets. The stock-market has recovered, then stuck
on a plateau. The bankers are already poking their heads above the
trenches. They are expecting big bonuses again. But great psychological
and political harm has been done by the contrast between the avidity
with which the administration bailed out the banks, and its comparative
reluctance to help workers who have lost their jobs in the automobile and other manufacturing industries.
President Obama understandably sought to reassure sceptics that he was
not prejudiced against Wall Street. Unfortunately he did this by
handing over the financial side of his new administration to be run by
people like his treasury secretary Tim Geithner, who was a protégé of
the very Wall Street titans who had caused the trouble in the first place.
It is too early to say whether the president will get away with this
mistake, either economically or politically. But it is already time to
look at the prospects for his own chosen domestic priorities.
There are many, many tasks he cannot shirk. But there are two other
pre-eminent issues which as a candidate Obama awarded high priority in
his campaign – reform of America's failing but passionately
controversial healthcare system, and climate change. He cannot run away
from them, and to do him justice he shows no sign of wanting to do so.
He will however be judged by how he frames what he asks from Congress,
and how he responds to what Congress hands him on these questions.
In each case, the president's 100% option is not known for sure. But in
each case the 85% he seems to have in mind would simultaneously
infuriate the right and leave a significant minority on the left deeply
The climate calendar
The question of climate change is already at the heart of the
legislative process. On 26 June the House of Representatives passed by
of 219-212 a bill whose essence was the idea of "cap and trade".
Corporations, that is, would be handed permits to pollute, which they
could trade; polluters who would not or could not meet a given standard
would be able to buy the right to break that standard from those who
did not need or want to do so.
There are a number of worrying, some would say disgraceful, aspects of
this result. In principle, for one thing, this is not to control
pollution, but to allow it. The standard, for another, is low. The
House called only for a reduction of 17% from 2005 levels, with a
safely future aspiration of an 83% reduction by 2050. By that time most
members of the present House will be dead. Most environmental experts think the bill is far too little, far too late.
Second, the Republican opposition still seems not to have accepted
the case for doing something about the danger of climate change. Henry
Waxman, the bill's Democratic sponsor, said there was now a consensus
that the scientists were right about climate change. If so, the
consensus has not reached the other side of the aisle.
John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House, called
the proposal "the biggest job-killing bill" in history. One of his
colleagues said industry would be driven back to 1910 levels of
pollution, as though 1910 was a vintage year for the air over
Worse, no fewer than forty-four Democrats voted with these Republican
dinosaurs against the bill, which passed only with the help of less
Jurassic Republicans. Now the Senate will come up with its own bill.
The Obama administration will do what it can to pressure the Senate to
improve on the House bill.
The good news here is that the Obama administration has tackled what
many believe to be the most urgent issue before all of us. The bad news
is that it has met more resistance than seemed believable.
The question of care
On healthcare, the prospect is even less clear. The system is in chaos. Americans spend,
as a proportion of national income, roughly twice as much as people in
other developed countries on healthcare, but by such measures as
life-expectancy and child mortality they are not especially healthy. At
its high-technology best American medicine can be superb: the problem
is access. Almost 50 million Americans, one in every six, have no
health insurance. Many more have insurance that will not protect them
against all of the risks they are likely to encounter (see James A
Morone & Lawrence R Jacobs, "American sickness: diagnosis and cure", 16 October 2007).
Two trends make it likely that the situation will get worse not better.
First, for the well insured, the quality of care does get better and
better, and more and more expensive. So already "managed care" by
insurers and "health maintenance organisations" has steadily chipped
away at the benefits available under policies, in terms of the quantity
and expense of medication allowed and for example of the length of
Second, many Americans have health insurance as part of their contract
of employment. This is particularly true of trade-union members (a
dwindling band) but also of, for example, government employees,
military personnel and employees of universities. But now unemployment
is rising. Many of these people will lose medical coverage for
themselves and for their families if they lose their jobs.
Experts, therefore, believe that the only cure adequate to the scale of
the problem is to go to a "single-payer" system like those in Britain
or northern Europe. For fifty years and more, however, Americans have
been told that anything of the kind, whether a nationalised healthcare
system or a universal insurance system, is "socialised medicine", to be
shunned at all costs.
In 1993, President Clinton proposed a fairly cautious reform,
strongly advocated by his wife, now President Obama's secretary of
state. It was laughed out of existence by the notorious "Harry and
Louise" TV advertising campaign. A worried couple talk health insurance
over in the kitchen. They don't like the Clinton plan. "They chose we
Now once again an army of lobbyists is descending on Washington like
the locusts that plague the city every seventeen years. Already ads are
running on TV retailing horror stories of the failings of Britain's
National Health Service. They are not, you can be sure, scrupulously
careful to show the best of the NHS.
350 former members of congressional staffs, officered by defeated
Republican congressmen, have been hired, money no object, to make
congressmen shiver with fear.
In the face of this army – recruited by insurance companies,
pharmaceutical companies, hospital companies and the rest of an
industry whose turnover exceeds 15% of the national income – no wonder
if President Obama is retreating from anything that could be represented as "socialised medicine".
Instead, it is thought that he will leave
healthcare in the hands of the commercial insurance industry, but make
insurance mandatory and perhaps set up a government health-insurance
plan to compete with the existing companies. In principle, that would
keep the "managed care" brigade honest. In practice, it would need
massive government investment and might not succeed.
The interim calculus
Already, therefore, on all three of the most important issues he must
confront, Obama seems to have rejected the more daring solutions and
settled for, well, 85% of what he might want.
Perhaps that is unfair. Perhaps he will stand in front of the nation
like a great teacher, and persuade the people that this is the moment
to throw caution to the winds.
Perhaps he will insist on strict limits to pollution, not create a
market for it. Perhaps he will bring the American healthcare system
into line with other developed countries that, by statistical measures,
do substantially better in providing good health care for a fraction of
what Americans pay. Perhaps he will stop the same old Wall Street crowd
from starting back on the old road of perverse motives, bonuses for
reckless leverage, toxic greed sold as "innovation".
That would be nice. But then again, he may be right. His calculus may
be the only realistic one. Perhaps the American political system really
has been so captured by the special interests of private healthcare,
corporate polluters, reckless bankers, that there is nothing even the
most idealistic and gifted president we have seen for a generation can
do about it.
Let us hope not.
Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. His most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism . This article has been reproduced from openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence.