WASHINGTON -- One of the kinder explanations for President Obama's failed first year is that his agenda was just too darned ambitious. Like Bill Clinton on health reform and George W. Bush on Social Security restructuring, Obama found that, in columnist Ron Brownstein's words, "big legislative crusades aimed at big national problems produce only big political headaches." The fault, in this view, lies in a polarized political system that punishes the bold.
Obama did overinterpret his mandate. His "big bang" sputtered and fizzled like a bottle rocket on a rainy Fourth of July. But the main problem with his agenda was not its boldness, but its utter predictability. In every crucial domestic decision of his early presidency, Obama embraced, or deferred to, a conventional, unreconstructed congressional liberalism. His main legislative achievement -- the stimulus package -- was shaped more by pent-up congressional spending demands than any discernible economic theory. His health plan imposed cost controls mainly through government regulation.
A health reform proposal that tried to achieve similar ends through market mechanisms -- giving individuals an incentive to control costs -- would have divided Republicans, assuring its passage. The House and Senate health bills united Republicans in opposition to government price-setting and the prospect of rationing.
The administration's main problem is this: It is has not contributed a single innovative, bipartisan idea on a major issue during its first year in office. Instead, it relied on its congressional majority to impose a tired leftism. But the Democratic Party itself was too ideologically diverse for that approach to succeed. Its internal divisions slowed the Reid/Pelosi legislative march until the state of Massachusetts -- of all places -- halted it completely.
Obama's role in all this is difficult to read. Either he is a pragmatist who always seems to choose conventional liberalism or a liberal impersonating a pragmatist. It matters little. Obama has polarized the electorate in unprecedented ways. A recent Gallup poll found a 65 percent gap between Democrats and Republicans in their approval of Obama, the largest for any president in his first year in office.