Sunday, August 02, 2009

Even the Economist Notices

That President Obama isn't a leader:
In foreign policy an American president enjoys the most freedom of operation. At home the man in the Oval Office is mightily constrained by Congress. It is the artful combination of arm-twisting, compromise, rhetoric and gritty attention to detail that make the difference between an FDR and a Jimmy Carter. Back in his honeymoon days Mr Obama was constantly compared to Roosevelt. No longer.

The suspicion is that the president has taken the experience of Bill Clinton too much to heart. The previous Democratic presidency got off to a rocky start for many reasons, but his failed attempt to impose health-care reform on Congress in 1993-94 bulks largest. Putting Hillary Clinton in charge of an unwieldy, secretive task-force that attempted to present powerful senators with a masterplan backfired. Congress promptly shot it down—and Mr Clinton lost both the House and the Senate to the Republicans in 1994.

A president plainly should not ignore Congress. But Mr Obama has veered to the opposite extreme. Although he has a White House stuffed full of first-rate policy wonks, he has repeatedly subcontracted the big decisions—the $787 billion stimulus bill, cap-and-trade, health reform—to the Democratic leadership in Congress. At times Mr Obama’s role has seemed limited to deploying his teleprompter-driven oratory to sell whatever Congress proposes to the public, even before it is clear what exactly those proposals amount to.

Worse, the plans have usually ended up running away from tough decisions. With the stimulus bill the flaws were forgivable: there was an urgent need to give the economy a boost. But the House of Representatives has produced a cap-and-trade bill that is protectionist, riddled with exemptions and which gives away the permits that are supposed to force carbon-emitters to change their ways. There is a growing danger that this bill will not be passed through the Senate and reconciled with the House version in time for the Copenhagen summit on climate change in December.

With health care, Mr Obama’s preference for vague statements of principle rather than detailed specification has led to a House proposal that loads taxes onto the rich, sets up a state-run insurance scheme that many fear will put private-sector providers out of business and fails to contain, let alone reverse, the escalating costs of treatment while adding an expensive requirement that everyone have health insurance, with large subsidies where needed. Barely any Republicans could support this proposal as it stands. Frantic efforts to save the reform effort are under way in the Senate, but it is distinctly odd to note that the president’s signature policy is now being devised for him by a gang of six senators. Financial regulation is also stuck.

A policy of ramming bills through Congress on a party-line basis might suit Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leftish leader in the House. But, from Mr Obama’s point of view, it is bad politics in two different ways. It is shifting the presidency to the left, annoying centrist voters who worry about the swelling government debt. And it may not even get the bills through. Conservative Democrats, many of whom represent right-leaning states and districts recently captured from the Republicans (see article), are nervous about backing bills without bipartisan support. Over 40 of them broke ranks in the House over the climate-change bill. Now there is the likelihood that health reform, like the climate-change bill, will be deferred until the autumn, when fears about the deficit will have grown and the two expensive bills could combine to spook voters.
See also WaPo columnist Howard Kurtz:
The new critique is that the president is so enamored of his pointy-headed liberal friends, so intent on imposing a 21st-century New Deal, so quick to take on a cop in a racial incident, that he's lost touch with Joe Lunchbucket, the guy who will bear the brunt of his health care plan and other reforms.
Finally, from ABC News' The Note on Friday:
With the health care bill languishing in the Senate and under fire in the House, Democratic leaders are quietly preparing for Plan B.

Under the scenario now being discussed, bi-partisan talks would be aborted and parliamentary maneuvers used to force the bill through with a party-line vote.

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