Obama: A Victim of History

“Don’t do it for me, don’t do it for the Democratic Party, do it for the American people. They’re the ones looking for action right now”, were Barack Obama’s words on health care reform to fellow Democrats this week. By the time you are reading this article, it should be clear if Obama’s party has heeded his instructions. Even without the benefit of a video to watch his delivery, it is easy to imagine how he made this statement, with a clear sense of dignity and purpose. The current ‘compromise’ bill is estimated to cost $940 billion and the debate on health care has utterly polarised the nation. With no public option and the retention of fines for the those without health insurance, many of those Americans whom the bill sets out to help will be penalised. This will fall heaviest on ethnic minorities; overall 15.3% of Americans are uninsured, compared to 19.5% of blacks and 32.1% of Hispanics. The question is why has the bill only a chance of passing in its present, much watered-down form, rather than the ambitious overhaul of health care initially imagined by the President, seemingly so possible just a year ago.

The majority of Obama’s promises have failed to materialise, from the closing down of Guantanamo Bay to rapidly redeploying troops from Iraq to Afghhanistan. A fact that has got lost in recent history is the relative narrowness of Obama’s victory. Moved by the history of it all, the media presented Obama’s victory as a national revolution, a hero being swept into office on a tidal wave of support. Due to the vagaries of the electoral system he did sweep the electoral college but he only just scraped 50% of the vote; as blatantly hopeless McCain and Palin were, they still got 46%. A few handfulsof Presidents-Bush Snr, Reagan, Nixon, Johnson, Eisenhower (twice), Roosevelt (four times) and a good many more have bested Obama’s result. Whatever their individual reasons, very nearly half the population didn’t vote for Obama, hence why he’s struggling just as much Clinton did. Crucially, Obama’s run for the Presidency unified the different parts of the left but did nothing to bring together a country that has been riven down the middle for decades. At the end of the day, the support that Obama used to get into office was not only fairly limited relative to quite a few of his predecessors but soft and vulnerable to fairly rapid erosion.

Obama’s difficulties highlight the perils of campaigning on nothing more than the need for ‘change’ (take heed, Dave). He did have policies-good ones, bad ones, mediocre ones-but didn’t really campaign on them; he didn’t use the campaign to win support for his policies that would have come in handy later. Right through the campaign there was a failure to get over the fact that Obama was not Bush and not white and so when it came to the crunch-getting recaltricant lawmakers to vote them through- they were not faced with the broad public support for Obama’s policies equal to that for Obama the man and Obama the idea.

There seems to have been a lack of forward planning on the part of the administration. They appeared to have expected the force of the movement behind Obama to make the Blue Dog conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans fall into line. Instead, the administration ended up following moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe round like a lovesick puppy and still ended up losing most of them.

Most of all, Obama is limited by history. The US constitution was written in an atmosphere of paranoia about the consequences of too much power concentrated in one place and so the system was set up to put as many roadblocks to big policy changes as possible. The Founding Fathers were scared not only about the possibility of another King George-style despot but of the people getting their way-the constitution was an explicit response to the elected state legislatures who were too radical for their liking. This is why it took an extra hundred years after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to get legal equality for African Americans.  They created, at least in constitutional terms, a very weak Presidency with very little formal power. Instead, Presidents have to exercise influence in other ways, the back-room dealing that Johnson was such a master at and used to achieve such landmarks as the Civil Rights Act and Great Society welfare reforms. Obama and his staff are too inexperienced and have risen too quickly to have developed the same skills.

Strangely for a country born of a revolution, all change in America is incremental. Everybody-the administration, Obama supporters and the media-will need to get used to the idea that he will have to be the first in a long line of Presidents aiming to build a more humane America.

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