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Our Fuzzy President Is About To Come Into Focus

First Posted: 09/10/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:50 PM ET

Obama

We're finally going to get to know the real President Obama.

Once the final outlines of health-care legislation become clear, we'll know what really matters to him. Where he draws the line. How he wields the levers of power. Whose ox he gores when there's goring that has to be done.

We'll know who's really in charge.

What's amazing is that more than six months into a presidency that Obama vowed would be the most transparent in history, we still know so little about some basic things like how he makes up his mind and who influences him the most.

Yes, pulling the economy out of the death-spiral bequeathed him by the Bushies was no small accomplishment. But the real test of his character comes now, with the first of two major legislative initiatives that embody his campaign slogans of hope and change.

So when he and legislative leaders emerge from their last meeting about health-care reform, we'll be able to take the measure of the man: Did he stick to the values he campaigned on? Or did he barter them away? And if so, did he get a good deal?

Behind Closed Doors

Despite an abundance of public remarks, Obama's actual strategy to achieve health-care reform still remains largely cloaked in secrecy. While the media's focus has been on the unseemly public wrangling in Congress, the White House has been doing two things: 1) Trying to influence legislators behind closed doors and 2) Making deals with industry leaders behind closed doors.

And disturbingly, the crucial endgame will apparently be played behind closed doors, as well. In a conference call with bloggers last month, Obama anticipated that the bills that eventually emerge from the House and Senate will, even then, still leave the most controversial issues basically undecided.

"Eighty percent of those two bills will overlap. There's going to be 20 percent that will be different in terms of how it will be funded, its approach to the public plan, its pay-or-play provisions," he said. But those are precisely the issues that all the arguments have basically been about for months now.

"Conference is where these differences will get ironed out," Obama said. But conference is the last great smoke-filled room of our deliberative democracy. After the House and Senate have ostensibly debated everything in public, their representatives in conference committee get to make all the really big decisions in secret. Conference is also notoriously where the big-buck corporate lobbyists do their best work - in the dark, like cockroaches.

The Real Obama?

Eventually, however, a White-House brokered deal will emerge from the back rooms. And one of two things will happen.

One possibility is that Obama, to everyone's surprise, will come out with a strong bill much like the one he promised his supporters during the campaign. It is conceivable, after all, that the reason Obama hasn't publicly issued ultimatums and twisted arms and busted heads is that he believes it's best to do those things in private -- and only when the time is truly ripe. In this scenario, which I call the Obama-as-community-organizer scenario, the community's needs are finally met, but in a way such that even those who had thwarted the people's will are allowed to save face.

The other possibility -- well, I call that one the Obama-as-pushover scenario. In this one, Obama will come out of it having given away the store -- having neither significantly improved the health-care system nor lowered its costs, but rather having created a new entitlement that primarily benefits the health insurance, pharmaceutical and hospital industries.

So far, the glimpses we've seen from behind all those closed doors suggest the latter scenario. Most significantly, late last week, first the Los Angeles Times and then the New York Times broke the news that Obama had secretly made a sweetheart deal with former arch-nemesis Billy Tauzin, head of Big PhRMA. The same man who during his presidential campaign so ardently pledged to let Medicare negotiate prescription-drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, has now apparently agreed to block any Congressional efforts to do that -- or anything else that would rein in the industry's obscene profits, for that matter -- all in return for $80 billion in promised cost savings over 10 years and, it turns out, an $150 million ad campaign in support of "reform" efforts.

If the health-care deal that emerges benefits the health care industry more than it does ordinary Americans, Obama is likely to argue that the agreement was by necessity a compromise. But keep in mind that Obama went into the entire debate having taken a fairly dramatic compromise position to start with. The most effective way to achieve universal coverage and bring down health care costs - Obama's two ostensible holy grails -- is, of course, a single-payer system. But Obama unilaterally ruled out creating an actual government-run health-care system - rather than a mythological one -- on pragmatic political grounds, before the public debate even began. [Correction: A reader very correctly points out that under a single-payer program, health care is paid for by the government, but is not run by the government -- an important distinction.]

Does Obama have the ability to stand up to corporate interests? There's scant evidence of that so far. Indeed, most notably in the course of the financial industry bailout, he deferred to them quite spectacularly. And it's not just corporate interests, either. There's something about the military/national security complex that seems to set Obama back on his heels on such issues as dealing with Guantanamo detainees, coming clean about the Bush administration's torture legacy or "Don't Ask Don't Tell."

Yes, despite an occasional commitment to open government, the White House remains largely a black box. We know some of the inputs - including a surprising number of health industry titans and veritable parade of other CEOs. By contrast, the "voice of the people" seems to be expressed mostly by the ten miserable letters from ordinary Americans that Obama reads every day. Doesn't exactly seem like an even match.

But we still don't know what really happens inside. Is the real Obama being serially co-opted by his aides in there? Or is the real Obama at heart a conflict-averse facilitator, rather than a leader?

We'll know a lot more soon enough.

My New Home

As for me, this is the first of many posts in my new capacity as Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post. Starting today, I hope to write fairly often - but that won't be my main job anymore. I'll also be working with a team of reporters who are redefining how Washington should be covered.

I've spent the past two weeks getting up to speed on the operations over here and getting to know the extraordinary HuffPost crew. I hope you're familiar with their work already, but if you're not, please come to the site (and its Politics section) often from this point forward, and watch what they do.

We'll be putting a premium on accountability journalism, focusing relentlessly on the corrupting effect of lobbyists and money on our government, and calling out those people in the national discourse who traffic in misinformation and know-nothingism rather than argue in good faith.

It's an opportunity to directly encourage and shape the kind of journalism that, in my previous incarnation, I occasionally championed - but more often yearned for.

Wish us luck. Follow our work. Come back often. I'm glad to be here.

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