The influential political blogger Nate Silver agrees with Bill Maher:
"This has been an extremely cautious White House to date; they have scrupulously avoided doing anything that might ruffle Congressional or public feathers and they are probably afraid of gambling on a specific plan and losing. But as Neville Chamberlain learned long ago, and Spock learned in the latest version of Star Trek, caution does not always equate with safety. It is time for the White House to take hold of this debate and not let go."
Without reference to policy outcomes, I concur, in part, with this analysis, and I dissent, in part. But my concurrence does not imply that I agree with Silver's premise: that Obama is "afraid of gambling on a specific plan and losing," or that his "caution" is the safe option. What follows is not a defense of the Obama Way, but instead attempt to explain what it means for policy.
Obama HAS avoided anything that would ruffle the delicate Congressional feathers. Why? Because the White House believes, from experience, that the president's agenda will advance more quickly through Congress if the White House provides little reason for the legislative branch to fight with the executive branch. From experience, they conclude that it is much easier to broker a deal between Democratic factions and the two cameras of Congress than it would be if Obama were pushing for more specifics. (Yes, there is an element here of a lesson learned from the Clinton administration, but Obama isn't Clinton.) It's not that they're afraid of losing -- it's that they want to win. Within the broader complaint about relative inaction on health care, some liberals worry that Obama isn't pushing for the type of change that fundamentally reforms and reshapes our health care institutions to fit a model that conforms to the way liberals believe the world works.
These criticisms of Obama miss at least one fundamental aspect of his personality, one that was evident in his presidential campaign: Obama has an abiding faith in the institutions of government. As a constitutional law nerd, he really does believe that Congress has a significant role to play in making legislation (and he has a corresponding belief that the prerogatives of the executive branch's actions on national security are sacrosanct." Parallel to the faith in institutions is an almost magical belief in the power of consensus. He's using his presidential powers, implied and actual, to build a consensus about health care reform, one that will last beyond his presidency. It isn't simply that Obama feels constrained by political realities in Congress, although that's part of it. It's that he believes that the best way to accomplish the most change is to let Congress legislate and let the President build public support for the end product, which still conforms to the goals that Obama laid out during his campaign. Don['t confuse bipartisanship with consensus; bipartisanship refers to outcomes, and the outcome here won't be liked by Republicans. Consensus refers to the process and to the way in which the public perceives the issue.
In the end, the criticisms boil down to a war about the definition of enough. Is achieving universal health insurance access enough of a major change? Can the regulatory reforms be enough if they don't subvert the risk-reward dynamic? If they involve existing institutions?
If you're inclined to think of Obama as an avatar of radical change, you're right: most combat troops plan to withdraw from Iraq on roughly the same timetable as Obama promised they would during the campaign. Obama's studious silence on the Iranian elections is a terrifically (or terribly) radical departure from the way the previous president would deal with the same conflict. Obama has broken through the crustiness of the Middle East peace process and is approaching Israel from a different, albeit sympathetic perspective. On his initiative, Obama and the Congress passed $800 billion worth of demand-side spending. The government took over major failing companies. His regulatory reforms include a new, fairly well empowered consumer finance protection agency -- a change so significant that his own Fed is already telling reporters that they're going to fight it. To say that the White House has been extremely cautious to date is just inaccurate.
On health care, Silver writes:
But the Doomsday Scenario for the White House is probably not that health care fails a straight up-or-down vote, but rather, that no individual version of the bill has enough votes to pass as legislators convince themselves they can hold out for an alternative more to their liking, while all the while the industry is having time bought for it to lobby against the bill, or to watch any of several political contingencies unfold (another crash in the stock market; the incapacitation of Senator Kennedy, which would deprive Democrats of a vote until a special election were held in Massachusetts) that could weaken the Democrats' position.
Yes, this is the doomsday scenario, but it is not clear at all that the same scenario would not exist if Obama had endorsed a public plan with teeth and had specified details that Congress is now debating. Congress would be eager to show its independence, and there might be even more variations of the health care bills. One additional characteristic of the Obama mind that comes into play here is his flexibility. He does not apply the same level of pressure to all situations. Health reform is a majoritarian idea, but a government-run system isn't. There is no public appetite for radical change; no mandate for it; no reason to think that Obama alone could move public opinion that much on the wisdom of having the government, and not insurance companies, mediate between providers and doctors.
Going back to the campaign, change has never meant massively tearing down and rebuilding institutions. It has meant, instead, using those institutions, which have steadily evolved over 200 years (Obama really is a stickler for precedent in law and in government) to achieve specific, concrete policy goals that, in Obama's view, make lives better. Those who want him to move faster don't understand how fast he thinks he is moving, and they don't quite understand the Obama method, and they disagree with Obama about the ends themselves.
Marc Ambinder is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.