Obama the Miracle Worker

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Via Matt Yglesias, here is a passage from James Suroweicki’s summary of Obama’s first year in office:

I never understood the somewhat messianic qualities that certain voters ascribed to him: Obama has been exactly the kind of President I expected him to be (and the kind of President I hoped he would be), namely rational, pragmatic, thoughtful, and even-tempered. But clearly many voters — even, oddly enough, some of those who didn’t vote for him — expected a miracle worker. When they got a problem-solver instead, one with little authority over Congressional Democrats and no authority at all over obstructionist Republicans, they were disappointed.

I know this is received wisdom, but honestly, it deserves a lot more skepticism than it usually gets. Did a lot of people really think Obama would be a miracle worker? I don’t personally know of a single person who felt that way, and the fact that he got huge crowds for his speeches means only that he was a charismatic guy, lots of people liked what he had to say, and liberals were stoked at the prospect of dumping Bush and Cheney. Sure, maybe a few thought he was the salvation of American politics, but there’s really not much evidence that this was a very widespread belief — and no evidence at all that Obama himself ever believed it.

In fact, this is mostly the triumph of a conservative narrative. It was conservatives who spent months during the 2008 campaign taunting Obama for his alleged messiah status and it was conservatives who were constantly misquoting him about being “The One” or griping about how he thought his silver tongue could save the world and induce vicious dictators to swoon. Remember the video on the right, prepared by the McCain campaign? Or this one? Conservative media was crawling with this kind of mockery during 2008.

This might not be such a big problem if it weren’t for the fact that it’s latched onto the political psyche like a leech, causing even normally sensible writers like Michael Hirsh to spout nonsense like this:

It’s difficult to understand why, faced with solving a Depression-size economic crisis, two wars, and global warming to boot, he felt that he also had to grab hold of the third-rail issue of health care during his inaugural year.

It’s been a disaster, of course, and may go down as one of the biggest political miscalculations in modern history. For the American public — haunted by too many rounds of layoffs, appalled by Wall Street’s government-aided Grand Heist, aghast at the size of federal spending that never seems to find its way into their pockets — health care was simply an intervention too far.

….There was nothing new about this, of course. It falls into the age-old annals of hubris, the same excess of pride that got Achilles and Agamemnon in trouble with the gods. Obama apparently did buy into the idea that he was a Man of Destiny and, being one, possessed bottomless supplies of political capital.

Look: Obama is a pragmatic, cautious, technocratic, mainstream liberal. He campaigned heavily on healthcare reform, and when he took office he followed up on it. And far from being “one of the biggest political miscalculations in modern history,” it almost worked. It’s been derailed only by the equivalent of a political meteor strike: a precise 60-vote majority plus the death of a sitting senator at just the wrong time plus the bizarre meltdown of his replacement just as the bill was nearing the finish line. If not for this 1000:1 mischance, it would still be cranking along and would be close to passage.

And honestly, does anyone really believe that healthcare reform would have fared better if Obama had put it off until after 2010, when his congressional majorities would have been smaller? Or that the Senate would have gotten up the gumption to really kick the finance industry’s ass if it hadn’t had healthcare to worry about? Please.

There are all sorts of ways to criticize Obama’s handling of healthcare. Maybe he should have produced a plan of his own. Maybe he should have pressed Congress to move faster. Maybe he should have been more personally involved. Who knows. But he didn’t take up healthcare reform because he thought he was a Man of Destiny, he took it up because it was a major campaign promise and presidents aren’t limited to doing only one thing at a time. Give me a break.


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