February 28, 2010 8:16 pm

Obama the pragmatist must prevail

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His split personality – leftist convictions combined with a consensus-seeking temperament – threatens to cripple the presidency
Bromley illustration

Barack Obama is a puzzle. He is a skilful politician – he would not be in the White House otherwise – yet he has managed to dismay not only independent voters but also the liberal base of his own party. One can see that he was likely to disappoint one group or the other, but not both. How could the man with the nous to stop Hillary Clinton ever have let this happen?

Last week’s healthcare summit crystallised the answer. As a politician, he has a split personality.

In his domestic-policy heart, Mr Obama leans left, just as Republican sceptics always said. By conviction, he is no moderate. At the same time, he is pragmatic, an incrementalist, not one to let the best be the enemy of the good. He relishes frank and friendly discussion.

The key to Mr Obama is that both these personalities are real. It is not a case of his being a progressive who posed as a moderate (as conservatives say), or a flaccid centrist who pretended to have transformational ambitions (as many progressives have come to believe). His ambitions are genuinely progressive; his temperament is genuinely open-minded. It is a rare and confusing combination, and it explains a great deal.

On healthcare, he has sought the most progressive possible reform. Starting from scratch, he would have favoured a single-payer system such as “medicare for all”. But that was politically impossible.

Starting from here, he preferred a big, bold reform that includes a public option – a government-run insurance scheme to compete with private offerings. As it turned out, that was also too much, not just for Republicans, but for moderate Democrats, too. Again, therefore, the president was willing to compromise.

When he delegated healthcare reform to Harry Reid in the Senate and to Nancy Pelosi in the House, he was putting people he agrees with in charge. So far as public opinion goes, this was a grave tactical error, because voters distrust Congress and wanted Mr Obama to supervise. But it was true to his ambitions. Liberal Democrats wanted what he wanted. On the other hand, Mr Obama never sided unequivocally with progressives as the debate dragged on. He never closed the door to compromise. This was true to his pragmatic temperament.

Sadly for the president, the left objects to his pragmatism more than it applauds his ambitions, and the centre and right object to his ambitions more than they welcome his pragmatism.

The healthcare summit was an object lesson. From the Democrats’ point of view, by the way, it was a failure. The White House hoped to expose the Republicans as a party devoid of ideas, boost Democratic morale, and unify Democrats around a feasible plan. As it turned out, the Republicans acquitted themselves well. They stuck to a simple and superficially appealing line: greatly expanded coverage is unaffordable at present; better to go step by step, enacting smaller measures that command wider support.

The Democrats failed to shoot this down. The session did little for their morale or unity. Unified, they could pass comprehensive reform even now, all by themselves. The House just needs to vote for the unrevised Senate bill. But the party is too divided. Doubts remain over whether the Democrats can muster even simple majorities for comprehensive reform, supposing they use parliamentary manoeuvres to evade the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster rule.

Meanwhile, the summit exposed Mr Obama’s split personality in compelling detail. He was an effective and engaging chairman. Under difficult circumstances, he supervised an excellent conversation. With every appearance of sincerity, he said he looked for common ground and pressed the Republicans for steps they might all take together. But the reform he wants – and must now decide whether to pursue – is still a big bang, which Republicans oppose on principle.

He was willing to listen to the Republicans; but on the main point of difference – the scope of reform – he was never going to be persuaded. The first brings accusations of timidity from the left; the second brings accusations of hypocrisy from the centre and right.

This split personality – leftist convictions combined with a consensus-seeking temperament – threatens to cripple the Obama presidency. What should have been clear all along is now impossible to ignore: the US is to the right of Mr Obama on domestic policy. For his own views to prevail, he would need to shift the political centre. If this were even possible, it would require a muscular style of leadership he appears, so far, to have no taste for.

If he chooses instead to be guided by the country’s existing centre of gravity, he must recognise that the progressive wing of the Democratic party is not his ally but his enemy. Not only will he have to compromise, which he has already done; he will also have to champion compromise. He could do that well, if he chose to. The temperament then fits. But he could not do it without subordinating his own views, advocating more centrist solutions, and breaking with the left.

It is a call he will be unwilling to make. For the time being, expect further vacillation. The best hope for the Obama presidency may be the drubbing for Democrats in November that looks increasingly likely. Just as for Bill Clinton in 1994, this would make the president’s mind up for him. With weakened allies in Congress, he would have to be a centrist president or an outright failure.

clive.crook@gmail.com

More columns at www.ft.com/clivecrook

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