Barack Obama makes history … again

I’m breaking my blog silence to celebrate a historic achievement by President Obama and the Democratic Party. I refer, of course, to the passage of a health care reform bill:  first in the Senate and, tonight, in the House of Representatives.

I understand why some individuals who supported Barack Obama during the 2008 election campaign have been disappointed in his performance to date. In particular, I concede that civil libertarians like Glenn Greenwald have legitimate cause for concern (i.e., over government infringement of the rights of individual citizens).

But President Obama staked his credibility on the issue of health care reform, which was one of the key planks in the Democrats’ 2008 election platform. Accordingly, I have refused to join the rush to judgement. After all, the President assumed office only 14 months ago!

I have bided my time, waiting to see whether the President would succeed or fail on this extraordinarily important matter.

President Obama pursued health care reform as a legislative priority despite a terrifying economic crisis. He pursued it despite a cynical misinformation campaign on the part of Republicans. (Which succeeded insofar as a majority of Americans expressed disapproval of the Democrats’ bill, based on widespread ignorance of what the bill actually would do.) President Obama pursued this priority when many of his supporters — i.e., activists on the left of the political spectrum — called for the defeat of the bill. Those supporters were disappointed that bill was not more radical — even as Republicans and Tea Party “patriots” condemned the initiative as socialism, totalitarianism, or worse.

And the President continued to pursue health care reform after the Democrats lost a special election in Massachusetts in January, which led many observers to conclude that health care reform was dead.

Tonight, against long odds, President Obama has succeeded where several presidents before him, both Democrats and Republicans, have tried and failed. Political observers have questioned whether Democrats could govern; whether they would lose courage and flee the field of battle, demoralized and confounded. Instead, it is the Republican Party which has suffered a monumental political defeat.

Americans will soon experience what health care reform means for them and their loved ones. And when they experience it, they will like it. The Republican misinformation campaign will be exposed as the hollow sham it always was.

In my opinion, President Obama has been vindicated by tonight’s events. His critics — at least, those on the left — ought to change their tune, and acknowledge that the President has delivered the goods on a key, perennial Democratic priority.

Health care reform is the most significant legislative achievement in nearly 50 years. Tonight, Barack Obama has made history — again.
Obama over the top 2(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. JewishAtheist
    Mar 22, 2010 @ 07:51:37

    I’ve criticized him for civil liberties and Afghanistan, but he earned my vote for this.


  2. aaron
    Mar 22, 2010 @ 09:45:35

    As one of his critics from the left, I’m not happy with this bill. I really hope I’m wrong about this, but I think the bad of this health care bill outweighs the good. I strongly oppose funneling billions to the companies that are doing the most to cause health care costs to skyrocket, especially without an alternative such as the public option. And those billions will make their lobbying all the more powerful, and make it harder to create meaningful change (which will be necessary because, in addition to the absence of a public option, there’s very little to slow cost increases). The entrenchment of the Health Industry Complex next to the Military Industrial Complex is complete with this bill.

    Further, a public option was well within reach through reconciliation, as it would clearly have an impact on the budget. And it’ll never be closer to being obtainable than it was with this bill. Despite his public words to the contrary, Obama didn’t want the public option (whether due to his worldview or the backroom deals he cut), and made sure that it wouldn’t be in the final bill — his and Rahm’s arm-twisting was all in the other direction, threatening liberals who didn’t suck up to withhold re-election support, and applying no pressure to the more conservative Dems.

    Truly, I wonder what the vote would be in the Senate if a single member (it’s all it takes when the issue is reconciliation) proposed a public option. Would “proponents” go on record as voting no? Bernie Sanders was bribed into agreeing not to offer such an amendment (more money for a project he supports), and it doesn’t look like any other Dem has the nerve. And a Republican won’t for the sake of mischief out of fear that such an amendment could actually pass.


  3. Stephen
    Mar 22, 2010 @ 16:03:22

    Hi, Aaron. I read a Glenn Greenwald post that addresses some of the same concerns you raise here. Greenwald describes the “corporatism” that defines the American political system. In his view, health care reform takes America a big step down the path toward increased corporatism.

    I am certainly sympathetic to the concern that capitalism dominates the democratic process. Corporate interests diverge from the interests of the general public. To the extent that corporations can dictate what happens in a democracy, individual citizens will always be handed the short end of the stick.

    I don’t have a solution for the concern. However, I think the situation is far worse in political systems other than democracy, where the rich are utterly indifferent to the lot of the poor, who are abandoned to live in abject squalor, if not to starve. Hence the lack of a middle class.

    Politics is the art of the possible. The problem faced by progressives is not (pace Greenwald) that progressives won’t hold the President hostage by refusing to support any bill that doesn’t measure up to their demands. The problem faced by progressives is that the population at large doesn’t side with them, to generate widespread support for progressive legislation.

    Put another way, the “center” in American politics is very far to the right of the spectrum. (I’m sure this is not news to you!) It’s very obvious from the perspective of a Canadian, given that our “centre” (yes, we spell the word differently) is somewhat left of centre by any objective measure.

    I don’t really understand the dynamic by which public opinion has continued to shift to the right, even after the disaster of the Bush presidency! I confess that the rise of the Tea Party baffles me. It seems to me that the American public elected Democrats because they were fed up with the Republican Party, but voters don’t actually support liberal policies.

    The reason the “blue dogs” wield so much influence is because any coalition has to solicit the support of politicians who are right of center. Otherwise it would be impossible to get enough votes for legislation to pass. As I’ve already said, politics is the art of the possible.

    It took tremendous political skill to round up enough votes to give effect to health care reform. That the bill is slanted to the right, and takes a corporatist shape, was inevitable. The only alternative is yet another failure. A truly progressive bill would have failed, because there is insufficient public support for it.

    Greenwald himself supported the bill — despite his grave reservations about corporatism — on the grounds that it will achieve some significant progressive results. I think President Obama achieved what was possible.


  4. Bridgett
    Mar 22, 2010 @ 16:28:09

    “A truly progressive bill would have failed, because there is insufficient public support for it.”

    Which is what grieves me most about my nation.


  5. Stephen
    Mar 22, 2010 @ 17:42:28

    Further to what I’ve already written above — Consider the graph Nate Silver posts here.

    First, states where Barack Obama received more than 70% of the vote. 64 out of 64 representatives from such states voted for health care reform. Where he received 60%-69% of the vote, 2 of 63 representatives voted against HCR. 50%-59%, 5 of 75 voted against. 40%-49%, 13 voted against while 17 voted in favour.

    If the President had proposed a more progressive bill, presumably he wouldn’t have lost support in those states that voted overwhelmingly for him. But would it really be possible for him to pick up the necessary votes in states which gave Barack Obama less than 50% support?

    That’s why a more progressive bill would have been bound to fail.


  6. snaars
    Mar 22, 2010 @ 21:09:46

    where’s the Like button? zomg, I guess I’ve gotten too accustomed to Facebook.


  7. aaron
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 09:10:22

    Stephen, you argue that it couldn’t get any more progressive due to the makeup of the House (and whom they represented), but that ignores a simple but extremely significant fact — the House Bill that passed in 2009 had a public option.

    And without the public option, I stick with my starting premise — the good is outweighed by the bad. I would rather have had a bill that did less but which didn’t do the significant harm that this one does.

    One question — I read Greenwald and respect his opinion greatly, but don’t recall seeing anything from him saying he supports the Senate bill or reconciliation bill (and I can’t recall whether he supported the House bill that passed in November) — certainly the link you provide doesn’t indicate support. I’d be interested in reading such a post if you could provide the link. FWIW, I see your argument demonstrating a different paradigm put forth by Greenwald, Villain Rotation —


  8. JewishAtheist
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 11:32:32


    The Senate is more conservative than the house since smaller states are overrepresented.


  9. aaron
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 12:15:56

    JA: We were repeatedly told in late 2009 that there were 50 votes in the Senate for the public option, but that it lacked 60 votes to allow a cloture vote to prevent a filibuster. Now that the public option can be added via reconciliation, arms are being twisted to prevent any Democrat from proposing it. Why? If it lacks 50 votes, then the amendment is defeated, your point is proven, and we’re no worse off than we are now.

    Seriously, there’s no substantive reason not to put it to a vote. It’s political. We’re left to wonder which senators who mouthed support for the public option when there was no chance of it passing don’t actually support it if it could actually pass (but don’t want to go on record as opposing it); and how much Obama opposes it despite his claims to the contrary (i.e., would he actually veto such a bill?).


  10. aaron
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 17:49:58

    Oh, and one other reason why I want a vote — if a senator opposes (or favors) it, voters should know where their public officials stand on this important issue (which polling shows is favored by more people than the bill itself is). This effort to shield them from having to make their true positions known stinks.


  11. Stephen
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 07:08:17

    Aaron: re Greenwald:

    I was thinking of this recent post. Reading it again, it doesn’t quite say what I thought it did:

    Unlike many progressives, I was never among those who advocated for this bill’s defeat because, as loathsome and even dangerous as I find the bill’s corporatist framework to be (mandating that citizens buy the products of the private health insurance industry), I’ve found it very difficult (as I said all along) to oppose a bill that results in greater health care coverage for millions of currently uninsured people.  Whether progressives are doing the right thing in supporting this bill is debatable (there’s a strong progressive case for the bill — any bill that restricts industry abuses and vastly expands coverage is inherently progressive — and a strong progressive case that it does more harm than good), but that’s a completely separate question from the one raised by Smith.

    So Greenwald stops short of supporting the bill, and he stops short of opposing the bill.

    He never opposed the bill. He has found it “very difficult” to oppose. The bill is “inherently” progressive, but there’s also a progressive argument that it does more harm than good.

    Readers may make of that to-ing and fro-ing what they will.


  12. Stephen
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 11:37:07

    I want to continue the dialogue with Aaron but, first, let me say how delighted I am that to see so many of my old commenters back again. I feel so loved!

    I understand your argument better now, and it’s a strong one. The House had already passed a bill which included a public option. It would have been legitimate to include a public option in the reconciliation bill (i.e., it wouldn’t have run afoul of the Byrd rule). Fifty Senators have already expressed their willingness to support a public option. So you deduce that the lack of a public option is directly attributable to the President, who intentionally excluded it from the reconciliation bill.

    As I said, that’s a strong argument. Your logic is tight. Nonetheless, I will continue to defend the bill.

    First: as I said in the post, health care reform has been a key, perennial plank in the Democratic platform for decades. In the judgment of Gleen Greenwald (quoted above), the bill that the Democrats have just passed is “inherently progressive”. Therefore I maintain that President Obama has delivered the goods, where several presidents before him had tried and failed.

    Second: I wonder what alternative President would have passed a more progressive bill than the one passed by President Obama?

    I doubt that Hillary Clinton would have passed a more progressive bill, given the Clintons’ prefered strategy of “triangulation”. I suppose that John Edwards would have sponsored a more progressive bill: but if Edwards had become the nominee, the Democrats would have been fatally wounded as soon as the news broke of his extramarital dalliances.

    Third: I emphasize that the health care reform bill is not modest in scope. It is a 2,800 page comprehensive package.

    After Scott Brown’s election in January, Barney Frank (among others) declared health care reform dead. He thought the Democrats should give up on it. Again.

    Rahm Emanuel reportedly wanted to scale the bill down to something quite modest. But President Obama — evidently persuaded by Nancy Pelosi, who deserves a lot of the credit here — persisted in backing a comprehensive bill.

    You’re reacting as if the President sold out progressives, but I think that’s an unfair criticism. He fought the good fight, after it appeared that all was lost.

    Finally, consider this question: why did the President resist including a public option in the bill? Did he really sell out to the insurance industry? Or was he making a prudent, political judgment?

    At the time of the vote, the Democrats’ bill had the support of 40%-45% of the public (it varied from poll to poll). They took an enormous gamble, passing a comprehensive bill when it had such limited public support. (Nate Silver: “It absolutely is unusual for Congress to enact bills of this magnitude with such tenuous public support.”) The President had to offer much reassurance to nervous Democrats before Nancy Pelosi was able to cobble together the required 216 votes.

    The Democrats stand accused of orchestrating a “government takeover” of health care. Presumably you would agree with me, that criticism is ludicrous. Even so, if the bill had included a public option, Democrats would have been extremely vulnerable to that criticism.

    Now they can appeal to the facts, which is that health care is still in the hands of private industry. You may wish it otherwise, but I think it was a prudent political decision. In general, the American public doesn’t trust government. And yes — the insurance industry would have campaigned against a bill with a public option. They probably would have succeeded in inflaming public opinion against the bill.

    I think the President accomplished what was possible. Not easy — barely possible. I doubt the House would have voted a second time for a bill with a public option.


  13. aaron
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 15:44:02

    Stephen: Thanks for taking the time to read the background on my arguments. Much of my response to you would be fairly circular, as we’re largely at the stage where we choose to see the same thing differently. I just have two observations to make —

    First, I wanted to address your suggestion that no likely Dem president would have proposed a better bill. Hillary proposed a progressive plan in 1993. Obama had Clinton veteran Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff, and together they have repeatedly engaged in the triangulation you rightly criticize Bill Clinton of committing. So while I don’t know that Hillary would have had a more progressive health care plan, there’s certainly a reasonable argument to be made (and tangentially, methinks that she would have been a stronger pro-choice advocate, an issue where Obama betrayed a campaign promise (and touted doing so at a signing ceremony today)).

    My second point is more at the heart of the discussion we’re having. With respect to the popularity of the bill with the public, in poll after poll, the public option polled far better than the Dems’ health bill ( If the Dems wanted to make the bill more acceptable to the public, putting the public option back in would have been one of the best ways to accomplish that. Ironically, the public option, the closest thing to a “government takeover” that the right complained about, was welcomed by a substantial majority. Further, the Democrats would have been able to tout the cost savings even a modest public option would have provided rather than engage in creative bookkeeping to suggest that the bill saves money. Given that, together with all the other arguments I’ve provided, I’m sticking with my position.


  14. Stephen
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 05:42:36

    Re the abortion angle: again, I think this is an unfair criticism of the President.

    As soon as abortion funding was made an issue as part of an already-contentious debate, the President was placed in a no-win position. It’s always like that with abortion: whatever you do, you can’t possibly go far enough for people on either side of the divide in opinion.

    Politically, the least contentious thing the President could do was opt for the status quo. And that’s where the President planted himself, as Matt Yglesias expresses very nicely:

    I’ve spent a while trying to figure out what it is Bart Stupak got in the course of his executive order “compromise” on abortion, and as best I can tell the answer is nothing. …

    The problem with Stupack’s position in this has been that current law already reflects what he wants and the proposal he was objecting to also already reflects what he wants.

    … Obama’s proposals have always included a commitment to maintain the status quo. …

    Stupak has been spending all this time huffing and puffing over basically nothing. In the end, Obama agreed to issue an executive order that basically amounts to pinky swearing that the Hyde rules are still in effect, but that’s always been his position. In exchange, Stupak agreed to acknowledge that the proposal actually does what everyone’s been saying it does, but he gets to walk away without admitting that he’s been wrong about this for a while now.

    So Obama gave Stupak precisely nothing. Nonetheless, the executive order is a reason for pro-choice folks like yourself to get worked up. And all this is the President’s fault — how, exactly?


  15. aaron
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 07:31:55

    I wasn’t really looking to tackle this tangent (which is why I put it in parentheses), but I guess I can. First off, my concern is with the bill more than the executive order. Specifically, the bill contains the Nelson amendment, which has now been signed into law. The status quo is that most private insurance companies provide abortion coverage. Indeed, a “scandal” arose when it was discovered that the RNC had such insurance. Now along comes the Nelson language, which policy analysis has concluded will largely eliminate such coverage in the private sector, to the point where there really wasn’t a difference between the Stupak and Nelson language. In other words, instead of saying that Stupak got “nothing” for his support, I would say that Stupak gave up “nothing” by supporting the bill as written.

    As for the Executive Order, Obama campaigned that a top priority is to sign the Freedom of Choice Act (, and that he opposed the Hyde amendment. Instead, he enshrined the Hyde amendment in an executive order, when before it had to be passed on a year-to-year basis. A small detail as far as substantive change, but it’s certainly in the opposite direction from his posturing during the campaign. My parenthetical in my previous post was toward the fact that his signing ceremony touted his betrayal of his campaign position — rather than sign as a “necessary evil” in order to get what he considered an important piece of legislation passed, he in essence celebrated. Tone matters.

    FWIW, I don’t only blame Obama on this matter — there’s plenty of blame to go around — specifically, at House leadership, who didn’t attempt to defuse this matter early in the process rather than wait to react when it became a last-minute issue; and at pro-choice groups that allowed themselves to be co-opted (and surprised), but who didn’t take an aggressive stand against the language.


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