Obama One Year Later: Tinkering We Can Believe In

In 2008, Barack Obama ran on a campaign of reform and change. In 2009, change means reform that Olympia Snowe can believe in.

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Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images

Before there were tea partiers, there were nurses. Angry nurses disrupting Sen. Max Baucus’ health care reform meetings back in the politically halcyon days of spring. Their complaint was simple: Democrats refused to even discuss proposals for single-payer, universal coverage. But unlike the deference that anti-reform zealots won this summer, all the nurses got for their trouble was jail time.

That’s because as far back as the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama began defining “reform” as something far more modest. The Obama campaign, Washington’s Democratic leadership and the progressive advocates who backed them agreed that Obama’s public plan—a competitive option inside the private insurance market—would be the face of reform. Everything more ambitious than that—like a single-payer plan—quickly became too radical to be taken seriously, while laughably cautious industry proposals defined the opposing boundary of compromise.

The result? The most aggressive plan on the table today—Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House bill—will get a lousy extra 2 percent of Americans into affordable health coverage, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Better than nothing, sure. But what happened to “Yes, we can”?

That catch phrase went into the same dustbin of history that holds so many previous campaign slogans. Though it remains blasphemy in both black and liberal circles to say so, today’s Barack Obama is no champion of reform. He’s a Democratic president and certainly governs from his party’s more activist perspective. But if one thing is clear in the year since Nov. 4, 2008, it’s that this White House is not playing for the deep, systemic change it campaigned on. Rather, reform in the age of Obama has been, at best, tinkering we can believe in.

Health care offers an ideal case study, but examples stretch across the wide range of policy debates President Obama has either sought out or had foisted upon him. And nowhere has the tinkering tendency been more clear than in the timid way in which the administration has gone about righting our economy and reining in the banks that put us off track in the first place.

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