Read these three takes on what Obama must or should do. Each piece is worth reading in full – but following are excerpts.
If he cannot do that, if he punts on this bill, or if he is passive and uncommitted, then those of us who placed hope in his leadership skills will have to acknowledge we hoped too much. The test of leadership is sometimes staying a course even when all the polls and pols have turned against it on a dime. There are times when a president should preside; but there are also times when he must lead.
I have one simple test: if the health bill dies from neglect and irresolution, Obama is no leader.
Depending on what they think will happen, observers bring up two well-worn narratives from the campaign. The first is Obama’s tendency to patiently let the fury of the news cycle abate before attempting to change its direction. You saw this in the months before Iowa, they say, where a listless campaign recaptured its spark with Obama’s tremendous speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. You saw it in the Summer of 2008, when John McCain and Sarah Palin seemed to be surging, and Obama was holding his money and negative firepower in reserve. You saw it in August, when Obama let the townhalls play out and Congress return to session before giving his first national address on health care.
Pessimists, however, point to a very different narrative. Obama, they say, has not shown himself a fighter for his policy commitments. His time as a national figure was short, adulatory and unmarred by hard causes or lonely battles. During the primary campaign, he was battered by John Edwards and Hillary Clinton on social policy, surviving mainly on the strength of his personal narrative and his opposition to the war in Iraq. His strategy on health care was to compromise with industry, compromise with Congress, and seek the path of maximal consensus, which has resulted in an ugly bill that doesn’t excite supporters and doesn’t comfort voters. This is all, they say, part of a pattern of conflict-aversion that the president’s supporters have refused to acknowledge.
Steven Pearlstein on the “State of the Union speech Obama would give in a more honest world“:
[A]s a country we seem to have completely lost the will and the capacity to collectively confront these challenges. Our union has been torn asunder by a clash of ideologies and special interests and brigades of power-hungry partisans that has resulted in a paralyzing political stalemate. In response, our citizens have become angry, cynical, distrustful and dispirited.
Economists have long recognized that what distinguishes successful and wealthy countries from those that are poor and failing is not their natural endowments or even their level of human capital, but rather the quality of their institutions. By institutions, economists refer not only to governmental, business, educational and civic entities, but also the formal rules and informal protocols by which decisions are made, disputes are resolved, commerce is conducted and people interact. It was the quality of its institutions that led our country to become the richest, most powerful and most admired on the planet. Now the deterioration of those institutions threatens our standing in the world…
No institution, however, has deteriorated more than the one in which I stand now, the U.S. Congress, which has transformed itself into a hyper-partisan swamp that fails to live up even to its most basic constitutional duties — making timely appropriations, confirming nominees for top positions and declaring when we are at war. You have saddled the country with a monstrous debt and projected deficits that will bankrupt the nation, yet you refuse even to allow an independent commission to draw up a reasonable plan to cut spending and raise taxes. You have spent a year deliberating on the urgent issues of health care, global warming and financial regulation, yet so far you have been able to agree on nothing.
My own take: Obama decided to spend his first year playing an inside game getting substantive policies through and legislation passed. 2010 would be about pushing initiatives that might not pass, about idealistic leadership rather than pragmatic deal-making. Tonight marks the pivot between the two. The only real question in my mind is what Obama will choose to do on health care. He can try a short-term political move by offering a re-written and even more modest health care bill that Republicans have demanded – while being prepared to blame them for rejecting it anyway as they likely would do. Or he can focus on the longer-term politically and on policy and ask the House to pass the Senate bill with changes being made afterwards through reconciliation. My bet is – given that most reports suggest that the debate on what approach should be taken is ongoing – Obama will do what he always does and hedge. He’ll say he is willing to consider a stripped down bill but that a bill must be passed even if that means the House has to accept the less progressive Senate version. Of course, he’ll say this in less wonkish terms.
But at this point, hedging is exactly what Obama shouldn’t be doing. Sullivan and Klein are largely right. Which is why I hope Obama is finally able to take hold of the political conversation for this moment, to tell a story about his presidency that helps the nation understand him, and that demonstrates why it is essential for the Democrats to pass health care reform immediately.
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