What Obama Can Learn From Reagan

He brought it up, not us. In the press conference announcing the tax deal, President Obama compared Democratic objections to the bitterness that progressives feel about the loss of the public option in the health care debate. What the president fails to comprehend is that his style of public vacillation and preemptive compromise is much more to blame for the disillusionment that so many Democrats share than the substance of what he gave up, whether it be on health care or taxes.

Lost in the story of health care is the strength and resolve that Obama demonstrated when it most mattered. At four crucial times, once before his election and three times during his presidency, he rejected the advice of his top advisors and insisted on pushing for comprehensive health reform. If he had listened to his counselors, Congress would not have enacted an historic law that establishes a government obligation to make good health coverage affordable, a law that will provide affordable coverage to at least 32 million Americans, saving 32,000 lives a year, and prevent some 900,000 families a year from being pushed into bankruptcy due to medical debts. When his back was to the wall after the election of U.S. Senator Scott Brown, the president fought back hard, finally going after the health insurance industry that he had long courted and brilliantly exposing Republic intransigence at his Blair House summit.

But the primary reason that his base lost sight of this extraordinary achievement is that Obama and his top advisors kept publicly waffling on the issue that had come to symbolize reform that would really change the status quo: the public option. His strongest supporters squirmed as he made the case for the public option in one breath, while in the next said that he would be willing to accept compromises that would render it ineffective. While the pattern of negotiating in public was most noticeable on this issue, it was far from the only instance in the debate of Obama watering down his proposals in public without getting anything from opponents in return.

What is to explain the paradox of a president who both cares deeply about core democratic values and so rarely stands firmly in their defense? Like most observers, I can only guess. He certainly believes that compromise is inevitable in the face of opposition by well-financed interests and in the legislative dance of overcoming conservative Democrats, let alone Republican obstructionism. His biographer, David Remnick, points to Obama as a great conciliator, in particular his success in being a bridge between black and white America. In his campaign for president he ran as a post-partisan, appealing to the strong urge among us to move away from rancor to unity of purpose. Unfortunately, given the reality of Republicans seeking to deny him any success, this strategy has become a bridge to nowhere.

Obama could take a valuable lesson on legislative leadership from President Reagan, who was a relentless public champion of his Congressional agenda. When Reagan would eventually make the compromises inherent in any legislative fight, his conservative base did not rebel, believing that their hero had done everything possible and achieved the best deal he could. At the same time, independents, who respond to individual leadership rather than ideology, were impressed by Reagan’s determination. By contrast, Obama has disappointed his base and appeared weak to the middle.

Obama is justified in the pride he takes in what he’s accomplished, whether it be health care, an economic stimulus bill that prevented a recession, financial reform that reverses the disastrous trend of deregulation, and more. But many Democrats question whether each of these measures could have been more robust if he had demonstrated ambitious leadership, rather than making preemptive concessions and publicly signaling the willingness to surrender on others.

We have seen more of this from him in the past two weeks. First was the announcement of a federal pay freeze, a measure that takes money out of the pocket of working families while doing nothing to deal with the underlying causes of the deficit. Then there’s the tax deal. As one progressive leader told me, “It’s not about the deal he got, it’s about the fight he didn’t have. While parts of the deal are problematic, it’s impossible to make peace with those when people are not convinced that there was a big enough fight.”

I have no doubt that the president holds the strong values that he demonstrated in the health care debate and the agreement to a tax plan that will stop millions from losing unemployment benefits and put money into the pockets of working families. But if Obama is to have a base behind him in 2012 and a middle that sees him as a leader, he will need to be seen as a fearless fighter for the values that he clearly cherishes, rather than someone who wants understanding for doing the best that he can in tough times against intransigent opponents. If he seems confused or weak, America will turn to another leader. But if he is a relentless champion for his vision, then Americans will believe him when he says that a compromise will move the nation forward. And those compromises will be much more likely to do just that.