Is Obama to Blame?

As I think I have made clear in my last two posts, I am as annoyed as anyone about the way the health care debate has played out in Congress. But there is one line of complaint that I do not understand. That is the idea that somehow Obama is to blame for the compromises in the bill. He did not “fight hard enough” for a public option, you see.

Here’s a typical example:

While many House Democrats have expressed anger with the Senate for the watered-down bill, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) argued that it was really Obama who let centrists take control. “Snowe? Stupak? Lieberman? Who left these people in charge?” he said. “It’s time for the president to get his hands dirty. Some of us have compromised our compromised compromise. We need the president to stand up for the values our party shares. We must stop letting the tail wag the dog of this debate.”

I am a huge fan of Rep. Weiner, but I’d like to know specifically what he wants Obama to do. Who put people like Snowe and Lieberman in charge? A pack of evil Republican senators and Senate rules that allow forty-one people to derail any piece of legislation they want. That’s who put them in charge. The reason Obama has not been fighting harder for a public option is that he saw the writing on the wall a long time ago. There are forty Republican senators who would never support such a thing, and Joe Lieberman who is a shill for the insurance agency. End of discussion.

Megan McCardle explains the basic point:

Ultimately, the moderates had a very good alternative to negotiated agreement, and the progressives didn’t, and that was crystal clear from Day 1. That meant the progressives were never, ever going to get very much. This was not a failure of political will or political skill. It was the manifestation of a political reality that has long been obvious to everyone who wasn’t living in a fantasy world.

Sadly, I think she is right. It is a political reality that is not likely to change, too. The Senate rules were written for civilized people seriously interested in governing. The Senate has not been that for some time. For example, I’m sure there was a good, practical reason for the rule that says a senator can demand an oral reading of any bill or amendment before the body. I am equally sure that reason had nothing to do with allowing a senator from the minority party to shut down the Senate for a day any time a lengthy amendment is proposed.

Typically the way you win over an intransigent senator is by bribing him with something else he wants, or by punishing him by hurting his state or district in some way. I do not see how either of those things is an option in dealing with people like Nelson or Lieberman. If the White House has any leverage over them I’d like to hear what it is.

The right-wing media was all abuzz the other day over a rumor that Obama had threatened Ben Nelson with the closing of a military base in Nebraska. It’s total nonsense, of course, but oh how I wish it were true. This is the sort of thing Lyndon Johnson, whose name has been coming up a lot lately, was famous for. I want Obama to be like the Mayor from Animal House:

Mayor Carmine De Pasto: If you want this year’s homecoming parade in my town, you have to pay for it.

Dean Vernon Wormer: Carmine, I don’t think it’s right that you should extort money from the college.

Mayor Carmine De Pasto: Look, these parades you throw are very expensive. You using my police, my sanitation people, and my Oldsmobiles free of charge. So, if you mention extortion again, I’ll have your legs broken.

The next time you are looking for a place to dispose of nuclear waste, forget Yucca Mountain, look at downtown Omaha.

That, alas, is mostly just a dream. Show me the cards Obama should have been playing in this fight and I will reconsider. Otherwise, put the blame where it belongs. These sorts of problems will continue until a larger percentage of the country can be persuaded to send sane people to Congress.

Which means they are likely to continue forever? Indeed. That is why on Tuesday I recommended abandoning hope.


  1. #1 Greg Laden
    December 18, 2009

    It is easy to get frustrated with Obama, but he is not to blame. It might have been nice for him to pull some kind of a rabbit out of the hat … and maybe he still will … but there is no doubt whatsoever that the Republicans have a very simple strategy: Sabotage the Democratic President or congress no matte what. That has worked well for them.

    The American People are stupid enough to buy this, and I’m starting to think that they don’t deserve descent health care or anything else. If this is Democracy, fuck Democracy.

    (yes, I am a little frustrated)

  2. #2 Bob Carlson
    December 18, 2009

    It seems a tragedy that Ted Kennedy is no longer there to humiliate the opposition for being willing to sign up for their government supported health care while making it impossible for most of their constituents to enjoy the same kind of coverage. There was a clip of him speaking out on this on (I think) MSNBC today, and there are similar ones on YouTube. They show how much he really cared about this issue.

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    December 18, 2009

    I’d buy this argument if the congressional leadership and president Obama were using the tools at their disposal to discipline dissenting members. At this point, Lieberman hasn’t even had his committee chairmanship threatened. Sorry to say, but the rest of the Democrats are simply enabling their conservative colleagues. The pwogglesphere is just looking for an excuse to ratify their precious Democrats again.

  4. #4 The Science Pundit
    December 18, 2009

    It is depressing. The only reason that people like Lie-berman and Nelson have any power at all is that the Rethugs are standing together strongly as a monolith. In other words, their defeats in the last two election–far from having broken them–has strengthened them; they see the light at the end of the tunnel where they take power back. In order to truly break them, they need to lose again (or at least not gain anything significant) in the next election. The polls don’t look good. 🙁

    That’s why I’m with pundits like Paul Krugman and Nate Silver in saying that we must pass this health care bill. If this bill dies, that will only empower the Rethugs and they’ll be able to capitalize on it. Yes, there could be negative repercussions of passing a weakened bill, but I can’t see how they could possibly be worse that if the thugs succeed in killing the bill thanks to Democratic enablers.

    The only real hope for the Democrats in the mid-terms is to (A) pass something that resembles health care reform, and (B) do something about unemployment. The latter will be difficult to achieve, but impossible if we don’t first accomplish the former.

    On that note, here’s (the first minute of the video) the modern Republican party summed up in song.

  5. #5 oldfuzz
    December 18, 2009

    By nature, democratic organizations are frustrating.

    Suggestion: Choose the most important piece of legislation in recent U.S. history, then study the effort it took for passage and enforcement. The health care reform conflict pales in comparison to some; e.g., the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    Frustrating for sure, but we elected the Congress that is bothering us.

  6. #6 Tyler DiPietro
    December 19, 2009

    One has to notice that Obama had no trouble convincing 30 Democrats to ban reimportation of drugs from Canada. For those of you who still think the guy is essentially in the right on this issue, I hand you the contrary evidence.

    Here is another simple thing the Democrats could do: force the filibuster on a good bill. Bring up cloture votes every day through Christmas and New Years. Make congressmen’s lives miserable. The Democrats aren’t going to do that because they are, once again, enablers.

  7. #7 macneiljo
    December 19, 2009

    That is very true. But You can get always get a full medical coverage at the lowest price from if you do your home work you can
    find the best plan.

  8. #8 Damien
    December 19, 2009

    Here’s where my frustration comes in with Obama: he has one of the single most famous and vicious attack dogs that the Democratic party has ever seen. Rahm Emmanuel, as much as many people despise him, is not above trying to break people’s spirits into a mushy paste if it’ll achieve what he wants, and he is on a leash in Obama’s hands.

    What could Obama have done/do? Instead of telling Rahm to get Harry Reid to cave to Lieberman, how about we unleash the mad dog on the Senators who won’t play ball? I understand and accept that the Democrats are a big-tent party, and I love that, but at a certain point discipline and order must be introduced.

    How about stripping them of their non-legally-mandated perks? How about filibustering every piece of legislation these Senators introduce? HOW ABOUT MAKING THEIR LIVES HELL EVERY SINGLE SECOND THAT THEY EXIST AS SENATORIAL ENTITIES? Obama has so much power, Reid has so much power, and Rahm can break them, so why aren’t they?

    This is why I’m disappointed.

  9. #9 Tyler DiPietro
    December 19, 2009

    “Obama has so much power, Reid has so much power, and Rahm can break them, so why aren’t they?”

    You’ll notice that Obama didn’t hesitate to launch the attack dogs on Howard Dean when he came out against the legislation, but nary a word has been spoken against Blanch Lincoln or Ben Nelson or even Joe Lieberman. Why not? Because this is the legislation Obama wants. Obama is far from a helpless victim here. Despite his occasional, tepid public endorsements of the public option, he never intended to get it passed, he instead wanted the industry friendly piece of crapola we are looking at now.

    Now why is this? Because Obama is a politician. Politicians are interested in political power. One of the most essential elements of political power is making sure you stay in the good graces of the power-brokers. It’s not a difficult set of dots to connect.

  10. #10 Damien
    December 19, 2009

    Oh, please don’t think that I don’t know that. My questions were rhetorical in nature only. Obama has gotten into power and basically shat on everyone who helped him get there.

    I personally won’t forget it.

  11. #11 J. J. Ramsey
    December 19, 2009

    Damien: “Obama has so much power, Reid has so much power, and Rahm can break them, so why aren’t they?”

    I think you overestimate their power. Obama, Reid, and Rahm’s power is basically to persuade people, and that can only go so far, especially when there are PACs who not only offer persuasion but money, and Senate rules that make filibustering too easy, so that it doesn’t anymore involve actually standing before the Senate and talking and talking and talking.

  12. #12 D. C. Sessions
    December 19, 2009

    I personally won’t forget it.

    Does that mean you’ll be voting Republican in 2012? Or just not voting?

  13. #13 BaldApe
    December 19, 2009

    The Senate rules were written for civilized people seriously interested in governing.

    Amen to that!

    Why on Earth would you put somebody in government who thinks that “government is the problem?” It defies all common sense. It would be like going to a doctor who rejects all of the scientific tenets of modern medicine.

    Well, maybe I do understand after all.

    What does mystify me is the personalization of the issue around Obama. Before there was any kind of plan, when he said “You guys come up with something,” the Rethuglicans were calling it “Obamacare.” Democratic senators who oppose it are listening to polling in their districts about Obama, not about health care. (can’t find the link)

  14. #14 JohnTR
    December 19, 2009

    “The reason Obama has not been fighting harder for a public option is that he saw the writing on the wall a long time ago. There are forty Republican senators who would never support such a thing, and Joe Lieberman who is a shill for the insurance agency. End of discussion.”

    If that’s the case, then why this call for bipartisanship ad nauseum? Sorry, I just don’t buy it.

  15. #15 cm
    December 19, 2009

    Jason and others,

    Do you think Obama and his cabinet have been doing enough to promote health care reform to the American people? Because isn’t it arguable that Obama could influence voters enough such that if Republicans stood in the way of meaningful reform, their own seats would be in jeopardy–at least to some degree?

    Do you accept that this is (at all) possible, and, if so, do you think Obama has done enough of it?

    (I don’t know either way; hoping to get some enlightened opinions here)

  16. #16 SLC
    December 19, 2009

    The reason that the Democrats aren’t going to do anything about the filibuster is that they know that eventually they will again be in the minority and thus will have use for that legislative tool themselves at that time.

  17. #17 Gingerbaker
    December 19, 2009

    “The Senate rules were written for civilized people seriously interested in governing. The Senate has not been that for some time”

    Are you saying that the Republicans have been operating illegally? Of course not – they have been playing hardball.

    Until the President and the Democrats are willing to play hardball, instead of a simpering game of whiffle ball, they will lose. After 10 years of watching the Democrats whining about bullying tactics and defending their actions by claiming the high road means not stooping to the Republicans tactics, I just want to scream – This is not a Gentlemen’s game you are playing at – real people are dying because of your spinelessness.

    Democrats – get over your delicate f***ing sensibilities and fight for what is right. Besides, you might just find that doing so will earn a lot of peoples respect as well as their votes.

  18. #18 Gingerbaker
    December 19, 2009

    BTW, does anyone know if Obama can simply issue a Presidential order to mandate that Medicare will henceforth cover people of all ages? It is a Federal agency, after all, and it is a simple policy directive.

  19. #19 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 19, 2009

    I do think Reid deserves some blame. I’m not an expert on the rules of the Senate, but my understanding is there is quite a lot he could be doing to make life more difficult for the fillibusterers, like forcing them to actually speak ad nauseum.

    But I also think a lot of the anger directed at Obama is the product of unrealistic expectations. I think one of the big things that animates him is avoiding what happened to Clinton. Clinton came in full of piss and vinegar and had a Democratic Congress. Then he got eaten alive over gays in the military and health care and suddenly had to deal with Republican majorities in Congress. Progressives were not better off for that development.

    Not all of the anger, mind you. I do think Obama has been too chummy with Wall Street and that he could be more aggressive in pursuing a host of issues. But the fact remains that governing in real life is a lot harder than governing by yelling at the TV from your living room. The basic political calculus has not changes. Democrats may only look good in comparison to Republicans, but that’s important!

  20. #20 Damien
    December 19, 2009

    Precisely, they have the power to persuade, both through soft tactics and hard. But in the carrot/stick calculus, Obama and Reid have been all carrot with no stick. My argument is that there are ways to make life a living nightmare for people who go against a majority party’s doctrine and agenda, none of which Rahm, Reid or Obama have utilized in the slightest.

    Jason @19 mentions making those who wish to filibuster actually filibuster Mr. Smith Goes to Washington style. Right now, there is just an assumed filibuster on everything, with no public repercussions. Whose fault is that? The Republicans for trying it, or Reid for letting them get away with it?

    Persuasion is not just flowery speeches and handshakes, sometimes it’s whipping the person you’re working on. I personally think Joe Lieberman would wilt like a hothouse lily if his car/driver, his plush office, his multiple secretaries, etc. were all taken away for his utter douchebaggery. Did you see how humiliated he was merely when Al Franken objected to giving Lieberman another moment to speak? That stung him. If his seniority was flayed from him like so much ripe meat, he would either drop this bullshit and get in line or he’d caucus with the Repubs. Which do you find more likely? There have been no punishments for his betraying the party on one of the central issues of the Obama presidency.

    I guess what I’m saying, in summary, is that I am not overestimating their power; you may, however, be excusing their not using it.

    Well, I’m not insane, so I won’t be voting Repub anytime soon. And I will most likely vote. But unless something incredible happens in the next year-3 (like the Obama administration ceasing to take every single opportunity to shit on the gays), I will work for Obama’s primary challenger, I won’t give him one single red cent in either cash or labor, and I will quite literally hold my nose to keep from vomiting my principles all over the ballot as I vote for him again.

    But that’s a depressing change from the excitement I had in 08.

  21. #21 quatermass
    December 19, 2009

    Did Obama create this mess or did it just evolve?

  22. #22 Art
    December 19, 2009

    I suspect that Obama gets blamed because of two major factors. First, a lot of people who voted for him really didn’t listen to what Obama said. He wasn’t W so it was taken as read that he would be fulfilling their drams. People who thought he would withdrawal from Afghanistan and support an immoderate position overlooked, failed to apprehend, his clear statements that he wasn’t. Somehow all individual good, hopes of good, are assumed to travel together and be embodied in Obama. By contrast Obama is liberal compared to W but on the wider scale he is, and has always presented himself as, a moderate.

    Second, A lot of liberals have an unrealistic view of how politics works. Their version of the Republican rise to power is simply that Ronald Reagan showed up one day, got himself elected by force of personality, and the Republicans took over. What they leave out is the twenty years the Republicans spent in the wilderness building their political, corporate, media, religious machine.

    The blood letting and infighting to define the Republican party from political first principles; the building of coalitions; the shrewd and vicious move to co-opt the Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic party; Twenty years of trading small favors for corporate money to build think tanks and the rest of the conservative welfare system; the decades of catering to the religious right; the slow build up and grooming of GOP figureheads.

    All this ignored it was easy to imagine that Obama, purely by force of will and personality, could see a Democratic revolution sweep in and take over. But, inevitably, without the groundwork in place Obama is and will be limited in what he can do. Disappointment is inevitable. As is the result that a considerable number of Democrats will avoid their own weakness and failure to prepare by blaming Obama.

    There is also the matter of Democrats being the party of reason, and being reasonable. The GOP can use hyperbole and unreasonable argument. The GOP enters negotiations offering up a fascist wet dream and then negotiating down to something they can live with. The Democrats are always stuck offering up what they want in act one and compromising down to something they don’t want in negotiations. If they wanted a mixed system with a public option and strong regulation the Democrats should have started with single-payer and liquidation of all insurance companies and compromised to what they wanted.

    But Democrats are not bloody-minded enough to do that. Might hurt someones feelings.

  23. #23 Damien
    December 19, 2009

    Art, I for one do not fall into your defined categories. I did listen to Barack Obama, both when he talked about the need to commit more troops to Afghanistan and when he specifically talked about single-payer or something comparable (I don’t want to say public option, because it wasn’t called that then).

    Similarly, I do recognize the facts of the matter in regards to the Republican domination of politics for the last two decades. I do not begrudge them their adeptness, nor do I overlook the long period of infrastructure building that they undertook. Truly, the Republican domination took years, and they are to be respected, if not admired, for it.

    However, the progressive wing of the Democratic party has built an informational, fundraising and grassroots infrastructure in New Media that rivals almost anything built from the top-down in Old Media by the Republicans. Between MoveOn, TPM Muckraker and the dozens of other top blogs, the left wing’s information penetration among the important future demos is unrivaled by anything on the right at the moment.

    Now, that being said, what I blame Obama and the Dem leadership in general for is stuff like this:

    An aide to Rep. Bart Stupak (D. Mich.) coordinated opposition to a Senate compromise on the place of abortion in health care legislation this morning with the Republican Senate leadership, the Conference Catholic Bishops, and other anti-abortion groups, according to a chain of frantic emails obtained this morning by POLITICO.
    The emails show that Stupak — who has so far remained silent on language accepted by Senator Ben Nelson (D. Neb.) and faces intense pressure from the White House to accept it — is already working behind the scenes to oppose the compromise.
    They also demonstrate a previously unseen degree of coordination between Stupak and the office of Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

    This is what happens when there is no punishment for breaking party ranks. Joe Lieberman gets what he wants, so now Bart Stupak is going to get his.

    Why do I blame Obama? Because until he started caving like an igloo in Miami, Obama was perhaps the most popular man in the world. He truly could have molded the Democratic party, because he had more credibility and respect as a national leader than Reagan ever did (seriously, look it up). Instead, in the admirable and naive spirit of bipartisanship, he allowed certain members of the party to break rank in major ways with no public punishment.

    Now the party is fractured, Obama is nowhere on it, and we’re looking to have the party of distilled insanity make significant gains in 2010.

    I am not naive, and I did not expect Obama to waltz in and snap everything in place in a year. I just expected him to fight to keep his promises, and that’s only naive if you’re a Democrat apparently.

  24. #24 windy
    December 20, 2009

    The reason Obama has not been fighting harder for a public option is that he saw the writing on the wall a long time ago. There are forty Republican senators who would never support such a thing, and Joe Lieberman who is a shill for the insurance agency. End of discussion.

    “If I get healthcare passed, we tip into A minus.”
    Obama sounds really devastated because of his limited options, doesn’t he?

  25. #25 Owen
    December 20, 2009

    I’d like to know specifically what he wants Obama to do

    What I would like Obama to do is lead.

  26. #26 Owen
    December 20, 2009

    @9 Spot on.

  27. #27 Owen
    December 20, 2009

    @23, spot on also.

  28. #28 Pierce R. Butler
    December 20, 2009

    You want to know how to sabotage a project, really ream it up the ass with an unlubricated telephone pole?

    You put Harry Reid in charge of it.

    For me, the defining moment of Reid’s political skills came during last year’s campaign, when Michael Mukasey was facing the Senate as nominee to replace Att’y General Gonzales. Remember how leading candidates Clinton & Obama voted on that?

    Of course not, because they never did. The vote came suddenly, late one night while they were out campaigning without time to return to DC, because the Repubs insisted on it as part of a deal to stop filibustering a military appropriations bill.

    Reid, with a functional majority, couldn’t get a “defense” bill (one on which no troops’ lives or safety immediately depended) through the Senate during wartime due to Repub obstructionism, and blew off the opportunity to highlight said obstructionism in a way that even die-hard teabaggers could understand. Instead he left his own party’s most visible leaders dangling in irrelevance, shoe-horned in yet another Bush crime & cover-up artist, and let his own face be rubbed in the doggie doo, just because he’s too weak/stupid to call the bluff of a nickel-plated jerk like Mitch McConnell.

    What Obama could have done, to answer your question, is present his own, strongly worded, bill, tour the country and dominate the news cycle promoting it, lean on Reid et al to twist arms, allow a few gratuitous features to be trimmed in return for iron-clad guarantees of support from “moderates”, and generally act like he gave a goddamn. Didn’t see any of that, now did we?

  29. #29 monkeyface
    January 2, 2010

    Wow. So much verbiage on this issue. So much vitriol. Is it just me or is there a double standard. Honestly. What was George Bush doing on this subject for 8 years?

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