In Barack Obama’s agonising, year-long effort to pass universal health insurance, the latest bump in the road may seem trivial, and the president must surely hope the Indonesians don’t take it personally. At the last minute, he cancelled his trip to the place he grew up in. The visit was actually of great personal importance to him and a critical part of his message that America and a moderate Islam can and will get along.
But he also knows that his clout abroad depends on his success at home. The linkage matters. There is a connection between healthcare reform and the war on terror, and between relations with China and the entire Obama narrative. His opponents know this, which is why one Senate Republican said he wanted to make healthcare Obama’s Waterloo. If they could defeat him there, they could defeat him elsewhere: on Guantanamo, on financial regulation, on Israel, on withdrawal from Iraq and on torture.
Until Christmas the narrative had gone largely his way: his first year saw a huge stimulus package passed, a bank bailout succeed, military strategy in Afghanistan transformed, a car industry restructured, big investments in green energy, an unwinding of the legacy of George W Bush and Dick Cheney in foreign affairs. It was not without struggle or failure: Guantanamo remained open, Iraq stayed unstable, recovery was slow and health reform kept slipping from his grasp. But the narrative was his.
That changed in January with the freak Massachusetts Senate byelection. That stray event gave his opponents a jolt of energy, affirmed the Republicans’ strategy of total opposition and prompted the first real wobble in the chattering classes about the man who had walked on water but was suddenly up to his neck in it. The conventional wisdom — he should have gone right instead of left; he’s weak when he should be strong; he should have done financial reform before healthcare ... well, you’ve heard it all before. The truth is: he was losing the narrative.
This is not unnoticed in foreign capitals. A presidency failing at home only undermines Obama abroad. Dmitry Medvedev knows this as he negotiates with Washington over Iran; Binyamin Netanyahu knows this as he stays on the phone with Washington’s neoconservatives, who are promising that if he holds on they can destroy Obama for him; Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad know this as they assess whether they can outlast this frustrating leader of the Great Satan; the Saudis know this; China knows this. A new president always has a steep learning curve in foreign affairs, especially when confronting massive problems at home, and so most seasoned allies and enemies take their time to make assessments. But the most powerful assessment comes from home.
Healthcare matters because Obama’s entire presidency matters. That’s been the White House message to nervous Democrats in Congress under acute pressure from the right. And in this gruelling grind, there is some evidence that Obama is actually slowly winning.
Polls show the public believes Obama is more open to compromise than the Republicans, and the direction of the polling on healthcare in turn has shifted in the past two months. The bill is still — in most polls — more unpopular than popular. But only just. The trend in all of them since January has been declining opposition and rising support.
Liberals who didn’t like the bill because it was too centrist realised Obama was their best bet in decades and came home. The Republican opposition got so shrill it began to alienate moderates. The crucial Congressional Budget Office fiscal assessment came in with a lower price tag than expected. Some Catholic groups — the Catholic Health Association and an eloquent lobby of nuns — rebuked the hierarchy and declared the bill acceptably pro-life. The bill is still on a knife-edge, but the odds in favour of health reform kept going up last week. Watching the various whip counts going back and forth reminded me of the agonising, delegate-counting path to primary victory that Obama took. It works your last nerve. It’s like England in extra time at the World Cup.
Imagine the narrative shift if this bill is passed. Obama will not have imposed this monstrosity on the country from on high; he will have ground it through the bloggers, and the pundits will declare a resurrection. The narrative will be about his persistence and his grit, rather than his near-divinity and his authority. And suddenly it will appear — lo! — as if this lone figure has not just rescued the US economy from the abyss, but also passed the biggest piece of social legislation in decades.
There is only one story better than Icarus falling to earth; and it’s Icarus getting back up and putting on some shades. The media will fall for it. The public will merely notice that the guy can come back and fight. Even when they don’t always agree with such a figure on the issues, they can admire him.
Again, the real parallel is Ronald Reagan. People forget how unpopular Reagan was at the same point in his presidency — and passing a big tax cut was legislatively a lot easier than reforming a health sector the size of the British economy. But like Obama he persisted and, with luck and learning, aimed very high.
Obama has bet that this is his destiny. He is extremely cautious from day to day, staggeringly flexible on tactics, but not at all modest when you look at the big picture. He still wants to rebuild the American economy from the ground up, re-regulate Wall Street, withdraw from Iraq, win in Afghanistan, get universal health insurance and achieve a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine in his first term. That’s all. And although you can see many small failures on the way, and agonising slowness as well, you can also see he hasn’t dropped his determination to achieve it all.
This is what we’ve learnt this year: Obama does not mind defeats if they are procedural or about others saving face. He’s happy to admit error; to give his opponents a chance to lunge at his jugular; to let opponents enjoy a day in the sun; to shave off any small stuff as long as the big stuff remains. He seems oddly impervious to personal insult: he doesn’t mind being affronted by the Chinese or humiliated by Netanyahu as long as it’s a matter of symbolism. On substance, he wants what he wants; and, on the big stuff, he has given up on nothing yet.
And so we dig in, with the sole relief of knowing that Obama seems as serenely confident as ever. This fight is real and bloody and gruelling. But if he succeeds — from healthcare to Israel to Wall Street — he will bring real change, at home and abroad. And abroad because of at home.
Yes, Indonesia can wait.
3. Reminder! Student Loan Reform also passed last night!
5. Oh and a reminder:
6. Flashback: Chris Matthews should have to take this back right? RIGHT?! He is 100% wrong about Reconciliation and this clip is making him look super stupid today!!!!!!