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Sahil Kapur

Sahil Kapur

Posted: July 13, 2009 10:17 AM

The Compromise President: Resting A Legacy On Weak Bridges


President Obama has enjoyed remarkable popularity during his first year in office, but the true test of his presidency is yet to come. As his broad reforms on the economy, health care and climate change come together, he faces a major gut-check. The president's readiness to make compromise after compromise with people who show no real desire to fix problems is becoming increasingly problematic, and is shaping up to be his Achilles heel.

While Obama's aspirations toward national solidarity are admirable (especially in a country this divided), bipartisan compromise isn't implicitly the ideal way to govern. Getting an abundance of votes means nothing in the long-run if the laws aren't ultimately effective. And Obama's tendency to make concessions in the name of bipartisanship appears to be encouraging him to water down reforms to the point where they may no longer work.

Let me illustrate my point with a simplistic analogy: think of a policy problem like the problem of getting across a river. Reformers will agree that a bridge needs to be built, while conservatives will complain that it'll put a bureaucrat between man and wilderness.

In order for reformers to succeed, they'll need to build a sturdy, robust bridge that won't break. It'll cost more, require more effort and be a challenge to execute. But conservatives won't want them to have that victory, so they'll try and weaken it to the point where it eventually breaks.

Obama's post-partisan self-image has blighted him with the habit of letting conservatives weaken critical reforms upon which his legacy will rest. He's done this with several major pieces of economic legislation, and seems stuck with a flimsy climate change bill. Now, by failing to unequivocally demand a public option for health care, he's in danger of building yet another weak bridge.

Sometimes, it works to take small steps in the right direction, but when the legitimacy of your ideology is at stake, it becomes crucial to go the necessary distance and ensure that your ideas are implemented in the best possible way. The tragedy is that if Obama's reforms fail to deliver the intended results, it will undercut not merely his approach but the very need for the changes he sought, which conservatives have maligned all along.

The larger problem is that fruitless reforms on tricky issues set us back by creating the impression that conservative naysaying was justified when it never was--when in reality the reforms failed because progressive policies were marred by those who aren't actually interested in solving problems.

To be fair, Obama is presiding over what seems to be the toughest time in American history to be a uniter. It increasingly seems as though bipartisanship, in this era, is antithetical to doing policy the right way. While Democrats have their imperfections, the GOP is effectively on auto-pilot opposition, where, any time an issue needs fixing, party leaders say no first, and occasionally--though rarely--think second.

We're fortunate that Obama is president--his understanding of today's complex problems is exceptional, and unlike many in his profession, he seems to have a genuine desire to fix them. But in order to effectively use this talent, he must rethink the efficacy of his partisan-balancing act.

At some point, Obama needs to refuse to compromise on the nuts and bolts of legislation, which seem minor in the short-run but could make the difference between success and failure in the long-run. Of course, this will make it tougher to garner the votes necessary to pass legislation, but that's what political capital is there for--and Obama has an abundance of that.

In his humility and quest for solidarity, Obama seems to forget why he's president: the country likes his ideas and trusts him to deliver. His approval rating emasculates that of Congress. He has no reason to fear a fight with any lawmaker or political figure, especially when his main enemies, the Republicans, have been deemed irrelevant by a decided majority of the public.

Obama wasn't elected to cautiously nibble around the edges of policy--he was swept in by huge margins to be a transformative leader, and the country is yearning to see more of that.

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