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.
Time and again, Obama has defined down Wall Street reform. He went from calling for a foreclosure freeze as a candidate to handing mortgage servicers $75 billion in no-strings incentives—a plan that has left foreclosures churning at more than 350,000 a month. He wagged his finger at bailout recipients, then let them off the hook with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s meaningless “stress tests.” And now, the White House’s answer for “too big to fail” banks is to help them fail in an orderly fashion, with taxpayer money—basically institutionalizing the bailout. Never mind not letting the banks get that big in the first place.
This trend started, as many have noted, when Obama assembled the most conventional economic thinkers in Washington to lead his declared search for unconventional solutions. He made so much fuss over not hiring lobbyists in his administration that people who worked for Human Rights Watch couldn’t get jobs. Yet, his economic team is crammed with Wall Street insiders. Chief economic adviser Larry Summers took in nearly $8 million in consultancy and speaking fees from Wall Street in 2008 alone.
Arianna Huffington was among Obama’s loudest, most gushing supporters during the campaign. Looking back on the year since Election Day 2008, through the lens of Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s new book, she asked chilling questions about the company he keeps today. Her essay is worth quoting at length:
Reading the book, I often found myself wondering what Candidate Obama would think of President Obama. Would he look at what the White House is doing and say, "That's what I and my supporters worked so hard for?"
How did the candidate who got into the race because he'd decided that "the core leadership had turned rotten" and that "the people were getting hosed" become the president who has decided that the American people can only have as much change as Olympia Snowe will allow?
How did the candidate who told a stadium of supporters in Denver that "the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result" become the president who has surrounded himself with the same old players trying the same old politics, expecting a different result?
All of this is before we even get to foreign policy, or social issues like gay civil rights and criminal justice reform. Obama’s environmental team makes a far more credible claim to the reform mantle than its economic or health care counterparts. But it remains to be seen whether the White House will sideline the true reformers when the climate change debate begins, too. Already, Baucus is vowing to gum up the climate change bill in the same way he did health care. Will the White House again make him a king?
It’s fair to say Obama has had a full plate since he stepped off the victory stage at Grant Park a year ago. But that was the whole point: We are in trying times and tens of millions of voters rallied around the promise of radical, new leadership to navigate us. Nobody said the job would be an easy one.
So the question now is what all of us who wanted change that we could believe in are willing to do to get it today. Perhaps if we finally lay aside the hero worship of a single man and embrace our responsibility to be engaged, critically thinking citizens, we can truly enter the era of reform we voted for. Perhaps we can push him to be the radical reformer that the establishment feared he would be.
Kai Wright is The Root’s senior writer. Follow him on Twitter.