Obama: Strong and Wrong

Michael Gerson

3/23/2010 12:01:00 AM - Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- At any given political moment, the most important public judgment made about a president is not "liberal" or "conservative"; it is "strong" or "weak." A verdict of weakness tends to be self-reinforcing. Every stumble proves the narrative, while achievements that contradict that narrative are downplayed or ignored. (See Jimmy Carter.) But the converse is also true. Strength has a momentum of its own.

President Obama possesses a certain kind of strength, which I had underestimated. His reserve is not passionless. During the health care debate, Obama has been tenacious, even ruthless. Following the Republican Senate victory in Massachusetts, he reacted with anger and ambition, not conciliation. He rejected a "skinny bill" out of hand. He was willing to employ and defend any method -- budget gimmicks, special deals, procedural tricks -- to achieve his goal. His methods were flexible -- the legislation violates some of his own campaign pledges on health care reform, including the imposition of an individual mandate -- but his determination was firm. When push came to shove, he shoved.

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In the process, Obama has joined the pantheon of progressive presidents. Some of them, such as the ruthlessly cheerful Franklin Roosevelt, were politically dominant. Others ended as political failures: Woodrow Wilson, cold, cerebral and unloved; Lyndon Johnson, passionate, prideful and broken. But each tested the limits of executive power, changed the relationship between citizens and the state, and inspired generations to love or disdain. Obama now belongs in this company.

The politics of health reform is nearly as complex as the legislation itself. To have raised this issue first -- before a serious emphasis on job creation and economic growth -- still seems a serious mistake. Obama's progressive agenda did not align with public priorities, which has cost him support. Once he embarked on that agenda, however, abandoning it would have fed a narrative of weakness that could have undermined the entire Obama presidency.

Yet passing this ambitious reform on a party-line vote by questionable tactics may also lead to political disaster. Headed into a midterm election, Obama has managed to alienate many senior citizens, concerned that cuts in their Medicare will be used to finance someone else's entitlement, and many independents, whose general disgust with the political process has been reinforced. The intensity of opposition to health care reform remains higher than the intensity of support. Solid majorities of Americans believe that reform will increase their own costs and reduce the quality of their care. No amount of presidential speechmaking between now and November is likely to change those views -- particularly because the past year of presidential speechmaking actually has been counterproductive.

The immediate political judgment on Obama is likely to be harsh. The historical judgment is, by nature, uncertain. Obama can (correctly) comfort himself that he has altered the health care debate in America forever. When Republicans eventually return to power, they will attempt to modify the package through the introduction of more market-oriented elements. They will not attempt to abolish health care reform. What Republican would want to campaign on a return to the exclusion of insurance coverage because of pre-existing conditions? Obama has created legislative facts on the ground that will shape every future health care debate.

But the value of this achievement will be determined by another historical judgment. If this health care reform had passed in, say, 1994, it might have been just another burden borne by a growing economy, and later refined as the predictable, unintended consequences of the law became evident -- an economic drag, but not a disaster. Yet if the American government is headed toward a general entitlement crisis, Obama's health reform will be seen as historically irresponsible. He is adding a massive new entitlement on top of a structure of entitlements that is already precarious. The costs of this new commitment are projected to grow at about 8 percent a year -- faster than the economy or tax revenues. And this new entitlement is substantially funded by the easiest cuts in current entitlements -- money that now cannot be used to honor existing, unfunded entitlement promises.

In this historical scenario, the irony will be thick. Having seen Wall Street court disaster with highly leveraged risks and many Americans ruined by overextended borrowing, Obama's main response to the economic crisis has been to repeat the excesses of both on a grand scale.

It is possible for a president to be strong -- and badly wrong.