I wrote an email to my political mailing list on August 21, 2011 entitled “Does the White House have Power?” At that time, many mainstream Democrats insisted that Barack Obama was an innocent victim of an intransigent Congress, that he ardently supported progressive priorities like a public health care option and higher taxes on wealthy Americans but had little leverage to make those ideas a reality.
Glenn Greenwald thoroughly debunked that claim on several occasions, as my email at that time documented. I revisit this issue now because the current government shutdown is yet another proof point that the White House has power. Both the Democratic Party as a whole and Barack Obama specifically exercise that power when they care about policy outcomes.
House Democrats just initiated a procedural motion called a discharge petition to try and end the shutdown without compromising on Obamacare. The strategy pursued by the White House and Democratic congresspeople during the current Obamacare debate has been not to appease, but to message, over and over again, that fringe Republicans are to blame for the shutdown – Republican demands are unreasonable and unpopular. Though many journalists predictably pretend that Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame for the shutdown, the majority of Americans recognize the Republicans are at fault. Obama’s appropriate response to the current Republican demands illustrates that he at the very least could have taken similar action during the original health care debate in the first few years of his presidency and during the “fiscal cliff” debate at the end of 2012. Instead, as Paul Krugman wrote at the beginning of this year, “he gave every indication of being more or less desperate to cut a deal.”
If Republicans had followed through on their threats in those debates, there would have been some suffering, no doubt. But there’s suffering because of the current shutdown, and while it’s regrettable, we sometimes may have to stomach short-term loss for long-term gain. In the current debate, the Democrats are suggesting implementation of Obamacare, a plan originally conceived by Congressional Republicans and the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s and loved by the insurance industry, is worth this short-term suffering. And it may be – my dad, who helps lower-income people gain access to health care, likes to remind me that Obamacare should improve the lives of millions of people, which is no small matter. If that’s your mindset, though, you probably should have supported the Republican plan in the 1990s and you should also probably give George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress some credit for Medicare Part D, which, like the Affordable Care Act, expanded coverage to people who didn’t previously have it while enriching private industry.
Whatever your thoughts about Obamacare, make no mistake about this fact: the White House has power. Obamacare in its current form is exactly what Obama and the Democrats desired. By their own admission, the Obama Administration didn’t want a single-payer health care plan that would benefit more Americans to become a reality. Despite his rhetoric to the contrary, Obama worked hard to keep the public option out of the Affordable Care Act. He pressured progressives like Dennis Kucinich to adopt a more conservative bill while journalists insisted, when Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman were holding up a better bill, that Obama was powerless to influence congresspeople. In addition, Obama never really wanted higher taxes on the wealthy or prosecutions of white-collar criminals who torpedoed the economy; he’s extremely cozy with moneyed interests. If he actually believed in the progressive ideals to which he pays lip service, we would have seen a lot more of his current messaging a long time ago.
As Greenwald wrote in the summer of 2011, “[t]he critique of Obama isn’t that he tries but fails to achieve certain progressive outcomes and his omnipotence should ensure success. Nobody believes he’s omnipotent. The critique is that he doesn’t try, doesn’t use the weapons at his disposal: the ones he wields when he actually cares about something (such as the ones he uses to ensure ongoing war funding — or, even more convincing, see the first indented paragraph here).” None of the Democrats’ or Obama’s behavior diminishes the Republicans’ responsibility for the shutdown. But I hope watching the shutdown saga unfold is instructive for people who over the past five years have repeatedly excused the Democratic Party’s poor policy outcomes as the products of a weak office.
Update: The deal the Democrats eventually got provides further evidence that Obama could have done much, much more during the early years of his presidency.