Sunday, March 28, 2010

What price victory?

Mar 28, 2010

Analysts say the acrimony between Obama and his critics will only get worse
By Chua Chin Hon

Washington: Yes he did. After a year-long battle that put his young presidency on the line, Mr Barack Obama finally signed into law a historic health-care Bill that had eluded his predecessors for much of the past century.

'Real, meaningful change is coming to the United States of America,' a triumphant Mr Obama declared last week.

The new law would provide coverage to nearly 95 per cent of Americans, allow young adults to stay on their parents' insurance plans until they are 26, rein in some of the worst practices of the insurance companies and, hopefully, also rein in soaring health-care costs that threaten to bankrupt businesses and local governments.

'This victory does not erase the many serious challenges we face as a nation,' Mr Obama added. 'But as we tackle all these other challenges that we face, we can take our next steps with new confidence because we know it's still possible to do big things in America.'

I don't mean to be a wet blanket, but I wonder if his health-care success might have actually made it more difficult for the US to get 'big things' done in future.

Anyone who has been following the wrenching debate and bitter party warfare over health care knows that the victory came at a price.

The Bill had no Republican support at all when it was passed by a 219-212 vote on Sunday night. And when Mr Obama signed it into law in the East Room of the White House, not one Republican leader was present.

The question here is not whether Mr Obama is living up to the fuzzy promise of 'bipartisanship' or not.

It is whether he and his allies have to wage an epic battle with the opposition each time they want to try to tackle a major issue. After health care, is there going to be all-out war again over finance, immigration or education reforms?

If his party retains sizeable majorities in Congress after November's mid-term elections, Mr Obama can arguably use strong-arm tactics to push through these reforms the same way he did health care. If American voters stick to their historical preference for 'balanced' government and representation rather than dominance by a single party, however, then all bets are off.

But how long can the world's lone superpower engage in this sort of 'civil war', and to what end?

Wasted chances

It has been famously said that no one should ever see how laws or sausages are made if they wish to retain any respect for the final product.

So it was with the health-care Bill.

The popular young President came to power promising to change 'politics as usual'.

There appeared to be few big hurdles when Mr Obama officially kicked off his health-care campaign last March. He enjoyed a tremendous amount of public goodwill, and talked constantly about uniting the country around its common challenges.

His Democratic Party commanded huge majorities. In the 435-member House of Representatives, the party had a 75-seat majority. In the Senate, it held a so-called 'super-majority' of 60 seats that allowed it to defeat any delay tactics in the legislative process.

And yet one year later, the Bill was passed in a time-tested manner: lots of bargaining and arm-twisting by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrat veterans of Congressional trench warfare, lots of lobbying by and compromises with big industry players, and much heated rhetoric and vicious obstruction from the opposition.

Up to the very end and beyond, even after the Bill was signed, Republican senators sought to gut and hobble the measure at the 'finishing touches' stage, filing procedural and technical challenges on matters like federal subsidies for Viagra.

They failed. But what lingered was a deeply divided legislature and a toxic atmosphere beyond the halls of Congress. There is not much to celebrate when acts of vandalism, obscene messages and death threats are aimed at Democrat lawmakers who backed the Bill.

What went wrong?

It may be instructive to trace the Bill's tortuous path to spot the mistakes made along the way.

A big one at the start was Mr Obama's decision to let an unpopular Congress take the lead in crafting the Bill. He opted instead for the role of 'encourager'-in-chief, pitching the importance of health-care reform at town hall meetings, television interviews and even late-night talk shows.

But this approach meant that he had no clear policy message to sell while the competing drafts of the Bill wound their way through various Congressional committees. Poll after poll showed that Mr Obama was failing to get through to the public, with most people professing to be confused about what the debate was about.

Meanwhile, a misinformation campaign by his critics on the right began to take hold. From last August onwards, the President found himself helplessly fighting one bogus claim after another: that his plan would create 'death panels' that would kill off grandmothers, that it was a secret plan to turn the US into a socialist state and that it was a diabolical government plot to seize one-sixth of the economy.

As protesters began holding up placards depicting Mr Obama as Hitler, and angry mobs began heckling their congressmen at town hall meetings, many commentators began to ask: How did a communicator as gifted as Mr Obama end up losing the public message on his No.1 domestic agenda?

Analysts said this had as much to do with Mr Obama's inexperience as the new media landscape that was reshaping the political discourse.

'In today's world with the 24/7 news cycle, millions of amateur bloggers and people getting their Twitter feed all the time, it is very difficult for politicians and government leaders to control the debate,' said Mr William Eggers, the global research director in the public sector practice of accounting firm Deloitte.

'You can try to steer the debate and be ready to champion change, but it is very, very difficult to control it.'

Course correction

In the second half of last year, Mr Obama allowed health-care legislation to drift from one unmet deadline to another. Some said he was too hung up over attempts to win Republican support. Others believed he became complacent.

Either way, it took a stunning political bombshell to force a major course correction.

On Jan 19, little-known Republican candidate Scott Brown won the senatorial race for Massachusetts - a seat held for decades by Mr Obama's mentor, the late Mr Edward Kennedy. With it went the Democrats' 'super-majority'.

For the next two weeks, his stunned advisers and the Democratic leadership debated whether to scale back the reforms or push ahead with a comprehensive plan despite the risks.

They decided for one final push on the latter. Only this time, Mr Obama did not have any illusions about what it would take to get it done.

Yes, he would still host that televised health-care summit with the Republicans. But the real work would take place behind the scenes as he and key Democratic leaders like Ms Pelosi corralled the votes needed to clear a new two-step legislative process.

Under this new strategy, the President would need at least 216 House Democrats to adopt a version of the health-care Bill passed by the Senate in December so that he can sign it into law. The House would also approve a list of changes that the Senate would then approve as a reconciliation Bill.

In the end, it came down to hardball politics. In the final week leading up to the vote last Sunday, the President made no fewer than 90 calls to lawmakers whom he cajoled, assured or arm-twisted.

The deal-making went on till the eleventh hour to court a faction of Democrats concerned that federal money would be used to fund abortions. To win them over, Mr Obama released in advance the text of an executive order that he would sign to uphold a rule against using health-care funds for the procedure.

Hours later, he and Ms Pelosi sealed the deal on health care.

Lessons in disaster

How will this battle shape the administration? Analysts say they expect to see a more aggressive White House going ahead, one that would not be shy about using its power or its leverage in Congress to get things done.

In a sign of how things have soured feelings all round, Mr Obama did not even bother with a token offer of conciliation towards the Republicans or his critics on the right. Instead, he castigated them for 'all the punditry, all of the lobbying, all of the game-playing that passes for governing in Washington'.

'I heard one of the Republican leaders say this (health-care Bill) was going to be Armageddon,' he warned. 'Well, two months from now, six months from now, you can check it out. We'll be around and we'll see.'

The acrimony that has been seen in the US in the past year is about to get worse, analysts said.

'Now that the Republicans have lost (health care), I don't think they see any reason to cooperate one bit,' said Dr Joseph Antos of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank.

'For the rest of this presidential term, we are just going to be faced with a dysfunctional government because the feelings (among Republicans) are very deep now and I don't think they are going away any time soon.'

But the administration still has many pressing issues on its plate for this year. Financial reform is likely to be the next big item on the agenda, but reports here are already pointing to a Republican plan for a 'broad assault' against the Democrats' proposals.

It is popular these days to speak of a 'broken Washington' and the need to reform America's political institutions. Some even believe that a third political party is needed to truly represent the independents and centrist voters and break the Democrat-Republican stalemate.

However, not everyone agrees. Mr Eggers, who is also the co-author of the book, Getting Big Things Done In Government, argues that the problem is not with the system, but with the way it has been used.

He told The Sunday Times: 'The Founders put together a form of government where it would be hard to move very quickly because they didn't want people to make rash decisions...I don't see the need necessarily for any big political reforms right now. I think we need to get back to understanding how do we use the system and how we go about getting the process right during these big initiatives.'

He suggested, for example, that legislation should be designed to work in real life, rather than for its ability to get enough votes in Congress.

But can you reform the process without changing the system? I don't know. And honestly, I don't see any real prospects for changing such a complex political system or its entrenched processes, particularly when the key players are constantly at each other's throat.

Perhaps Mr Obama will forge a way through the fractious politics. Or maybe we just have to get used to the harsh new realities of American politics.

He did.


[It may be that the US political system would inevitably lead to this polarisation of political ends. When democrats and Republicans campaign on ideological positions, the debate is not much more than dogmatic soundbites and uncompromisable statement of absolute positions... when it rises above demonisation of the other. The system used to work because members reach across to the other side, and they were not immersed in a doctrinal miasma of a self-supporting system that is created by a personalised new media cocoon. With the new media, it is entirely possible not to subject oneself to any conflicting or contradicting statement. From this fully supportive media cocoon, it is only a short hop to believing that one's position is sanctioned by God.]

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