President Obama was awfully good last night. Reading between the lines, the New York Times gave him a “6” or “7” – I guess because he did not promise to fall on his sword over a public option – and the Wall Street Journal gave him an “8.” You can always tell with the Journal – if it harrumphs that everything is mere politics and clearly short-lived, then the editorial writers, in whatever parallel universe they are watching all of this from, were impressed. I gave him an “8.” We saw more than a glimpse of how good this guy could become. (A predictable part of the progressive spectrum is deeply upset about the “heckling” President Obama received. First, just when did presidents rise to such levels that they are immune from heckling? Second, as President Clinton and, now, President Obama have shown, any president with any game skills – which both of them have flowing over – do much better with a little heckling. Third, if you have to have hecklers, and you were given your choice of all possible hecklers in the world, you would choose this set of Congressional Republicans.)
But there is a lot more to be said about the speech and what made the speech necessary. I want to comment on the policy; the outcome; the strategy; and President-Congressional institutional relations.
The health care reform is an o.k. conventional wisdom policy – and maybe that’s all you ever get. It won’t begin a restructuring of health care, it almost certainly costs a lot more that the president said, but maybe it provides room to fight another day on some of the bigger issues.
I wish the President had taken David Brooks advice in his column last week – I know it wrecks any progressive credentials I might have had but I think he is the best and most thoughtful columnist today. Brooks hoped that President Obama read and took in the long article on health care in the current Atlantic by David Goldhill. I’ve read the piece and recommend it as one of the most perceptive looks at health care I’ve read in a long time. Goldhill argues that (1) our health care system fails in very revealing ways; (2) the failures tell us many of the structural problems of health care as a system; and (3) most fundamentally, if we do not think of health care as an economic matter and a market problem we will never get it right. Working economists (I’m a non-working economist) are generally snotty about any market analysis done by business school professors or by anyone who might actually know anything about markets. And one of the cardinal principles of progressives as they look at health care is that the insurance industry is irrationally evil, probably for DNA reasons, and certainly not worth understanding. It’s a shame – if we thought about the markets sensibly we could make a huge amount of progress, at less cost than any other alternative.
I think the outcome of the speech is going to be passage of something much like the outline the President proposed last night. He made the political stakes clear both to the Democrats and the Republicans; he provided enough wiggle room for the critical negotiations (there will clearly be some hit on the huge tax preferences given to employer provided health insurance); and the Washington system policy attention span has been passed. Everyone loves the ‘who is up or down” games, the cut and thrust; the media in particular dislikes the actual policy questions. So as soon as the policy issues begin to matter, attention shifts to the next game.
But it is important for the future to ask why the White House had to throw this particular “hail Mary pass.” The answer is two part: it doesn’t work to have a president outsource a complicated issue to the Congress, sit back relatively passively while Congress works its way into a corner; and then untie the baby from the tracks at the last moment. Presidents cannot be for good and against evil in general; just about the only thing that makes our system face up to anything hard is a president pushing it. Because of this, presidents – who always have to juggle too much – have to be acutely aware of their juggling limits. White Houses have capacity constraints although none of them really ever acknowledge that. “Doing something” is completely different for presidents than for members of Congress. And the scarcest strategic resource a White House allocates is presidential time.
Finally some thoughts about presidents and Congresses. Here are some rules of the road:
What we saw last night was an aspect of how the relationship ought to be. Presidents lead and propose; Congress disposes.
The Constitution designed the executive and the legislative to be different branches and expected/intended them to be at each others’ throats. From a White House perspective, Congress is not your friend. The Congress has different interests and priorities, functions in different ways, and has an entirely different world view. We are not a parliamentary system.
For a Democratic President, negotiating with a Democratic Congress is much harder than negotiating with a Republican Congress. Congress cannot develop complicated policy. The Executive branch is designed to develop and then to implement policy. Congress is good at drafting legislation.
Presidential vetoes are good things. This issue will begin to arise. Congress, in particular, will argue that for a Democratic President to veto a Democratic Congress’s legislation is a fundamental breakdown in the scheme of the universe. This is not the case. Vetoes are healthy for the system; and to a reasonable approximation the more a president uses the veto power the better off he is.
A final comment. I have never bought the view – about health care or any other major policy – that the reason there have been failures is either an insidious collusion of evil forces or that a President made a mistake. Both of course happen, but the real reason is one Pogo underlined decades ago. “We have met the enemy and they is us.” The issues are hard. Health care is really hard. But my guess is that energy and climate policy will turn out to be harder. At this level of policy, presidents have to do a lot more than simply get legislation and have a Rose Garden ceremony; the legislation has to be mostly right. If there is any chance of (1) getting action and (2) getting sensible action, Presidents have to lead. This is the promise I saw and saw again last night in President Obama.
Roosevelt Institute Braintruster Bo Cutter is a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team.