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Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner

Posted: March 14, 2010 10:30 PM

The End of an Illusion

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Are we at a turning point in the Obama presidency? It took far too long, but the president has belatedly grasped that when the other party is out to destroy you, the search for common ground is a fool's errand.

For over a year, Obama believed that reform required him to govern as a post-ideological bipartisan. Now, mercifully, he has learned that progressive leadership demands taking on the Republicans, just as it requires taking on the insurance and banking industries. There is little common ground on those fronts either.

Since early March, Obama has begun to sound more like the bold figure who won the hearts of voters during the campaign. The showdown is expected late next week. Speaker Nancy Pelosi seldom schedules a vote without having a majority in her pocket. With all the bill's deficiencies, winning its passage would be a triumph, not just for expansion of health coverage, but for Obama's capacity to learn and grow in office and defeat Republican obstruction.

Should he succeed, there will be little public sympathy for Republican caviling about the use of the reconciliation progress to, well, reconcile differences between the House and Senate bills. Technical parliamentary complaints will seem more like the bleating of sore losers. Obama can seize the high ground of majority rule.

And thanks to the sheer extremism of episodes like Sen. Jim Bunning's attempted blockage of unemployment insurance, Liz Cheney's association of lawyers honoring the constitutional right to legal counsel with treason; and the refusal of Congressional Republicans to back even token recovery spending, Obama is well positioned to define a new political mainstream even as he becomes a more effective partisan progressive.

This odyssey was not an easy journey, and it is far from complete. Obama's belief in common ground runs very deep in his being. It remains to be seen whether his reluctant embrace of partisanship to win the health reform battle marks a durable change in his governing style, or a one-off. But a victory on this defining issue, after months of defeatism, would surely taste sweet and would very likely mark a shift in Obama's conception of leadership.

I say all this despite serious misgivings about the health plan itself. The compulsory mandate is a fundamental flaw, as Obama himself recognized during the campaign. There is a world of difference between true social insurance and a mandate to purchase a private product. The former reinforces the value of government and of social solidarity; the latter signals a coercive state in concert with private industry profits. The proposed tax on decent insurance was a tone-deaf assault on wage earners for whom good health coverage is a rare, reliable island in a rising sea of economic insecurity. The diversion of Medicare funds was a political gift to Republicans. And the back-loading of benefits purely for budgetary reasons made the bill a political piñata, with the risks evident and the gains deferred.

All of these elements made the plan a harder sell with legislators of Obama's own party -- but all can be fixed. At the end of the day, even Congressional Democrats who worried that voters might punish them for supporting this measure grasped a more fundamental political truth: winning beats losing. There will be time to improve the bill, particularly now that Democrats have given themselves permission to use majority rule rather than defer to Republican obstruction.

Obama's new stance also serves as a role model. Senate Banking Chairman Chris Dodd's belated abandonment of a futile bipartisan approach to financial reform provides a bookend to the president's new partisan leadership on health reform.

Obama has also just appointed three relative progressives to the Federal Reserve, including Sarah Bloom Raskin of Maryland, widely considered the best of the state financial regulators. There is not a single businessman or banker in the lot.

Including in the health package an overhaul of the student loan program, long blocked in the senate, is another welcome demonstration of presidential nerve. But prevailing on this first round of health reform will be just the first step on a long road back.

Though both Obama and the Republicans treated health reform as the defining issue of his presidency, other challenges loom far larger. Obama has to do better on employment, mortgage relief, and financial reform. He has to deliver more tangible help to people for whom this recovery still feels like a depression. Presidential leadership has been crowded out by the grand distraction of health reform and by Obama's own reluctance to think bigger and fight harder. In these critical areas too, corporate and partisan adversaries have blocked progress. For this to be a true turning point, his new-found partisanship and bolder progressive stance must extend to the larger enterprise of restoring prosperity.

If Obama wins health reform, and goes on to fight harder for a real recovery program, some future historian (doubtless guided by extended interviews with Rahm Emanuel) will report that this latest turn to aggressive partisanship was all part of the grand design. Obama would spend his first year seeking bipartisan consensus, and then when it was clear to one and all that the Republicans were hopeless obstructionists, he'd spring the trap.

The reality was a lot messier. Obama's administration was all over the place strategically, and only came to presidential toughness belatedly and as a last resort. But Obama's behavior during the past two weeks does remind us why we saw great things in this man, and better late than never.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His forthcoming book is A Presidency in Peril.