August, 2009 And The Wily, Humbled Barack Obama

For Barack Obama, the end of the End of History is here. Since his election, the President has hovered above the rest of our political institutions, the content of his own policies, the Congress, and the fundamental geo-demographic parity that aggressively pulls popular politicians down and unpopular politicians up. As First Read notes, Obama is now as popular as he was on the eve of the election, which, you'll recall, was popular enough. All American presidents of recent memory, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter, tend to think magically about their place in the world. In many ways, Obama was elected at the moment when Americans began to see the consequences of having blindly lived through an age of exceptionalism and excess: excess consumption, excess (and ungrounded) foreign policy imperialism, excess hubris and confidence. Obama exuded a confident humility and restraint. He quoted Reinhold Neibuhr and seemed to promise that, under his administration, America would no longer try to manage history.

And yet Obama was not elected because Americans rejected the culture of self-indulgence. In terms of foreign policy, that may be true, but domestically, Obama's mandate was activist change; reform health care; reform the political institutions; build a new economic model for the 21st century. Democrats acted with hubris and without restraint, quite deliberately. From the first day of the administration, officials conceded that they knew the President would seem to over-perform in the first 100 days or so, and then gravity would kick in, bringing him down to the realm of mere mortals. Now, the reality principle has kicked in.  It consisted of three kicks to the sternum. (1)  The economy was worse than had been projected, and the administration didn't seem to get a handle on how deficit politics would intersect with health care politics. (2) The White House decided that it was more important to get a bill through the House and the Senate than it was to make the consumer's majoritarian case for health care. This choice makes sense even in retrospect: progress is being made towards a Senate bill that gives the President about 85% of what he really wants, and in the House, the chances that liberals will "revolt" because the "public plan" isn't "robust" is minuscule.

The benign neglect of public opinion on health care will make for a complicated August recess. The President will spend more time than he planned to on the road, going from state to state, trying to persuade the American people to look at health care the way they do during campaigns, when they tend to pay attention to what they want changed. Here the Democrats are solid: Americans still prefer the President's leadership on health care to whatever it is that the Republicans are doing. (3) "The American people are more patient than you give them credit for," or so President Obama and his advisers repeatedly tell us.  But that's not really true. Americans are congenitally impatient. They're starting to react, now, to the ebb and flow of daily events. The stock market goes up, and, wouldn't you know, Americans are more confident in the economy. Obama forgets for a moment he's the president and injects himself into a race/class/power controversy -- the public gets irritated for a bit.  Trying to decipher what Americans really want out of health care reform is next to impossible. They want change where it will benefit them and don't where it might add uncertainty. They want the government to regulate insurance companies, but they don't want the government to interfere with their choice of doctor or treatment.

In Washington, events tend to be dictated by the interaction between leaders, institutions and contingency.  Prospects for comprehensive health care reform legislation are roughly as good as good as they were when the President was inaugurated. The basic structure of politics favors its passage. And the President is figuring out how to be an agile political leader, weighing in when necessary, choosing his words carefully in public and private, using pressure at certain moments and charm at others. If I had a single theory to explain the orientation of successful political leaders, it would be that they process uncertainty with cognitive maturity (i.e., they don't panic) and they manage contingencies better than unsuccessful ones. Obama's strategy seems to be to stick to the long game and leave himself room to handle surprises as they arise. This mode of leadership is attractive to Democratic-leaning independents, even those who don't like liberal policies. The President's most effective weapon has been his humility: when he concedes errors, when he acknowledges that he's changed his mind.

No question: the messiness of the Congressional negotiations is a contingency that has to be handled. The re-emergence of political polarization is a contingency that has to be handled. The higher-than-expected unemployment rate is a contingency that has to be handled. Henry Louis Gates and Officer Crowley -- that situation is a contingency, too, one that the White House quickly realized had hurt the President in the short term and had to be solved using the powers of the presidency.