Publius

Publius

Does Obama Care?

EPA/Yoon S. Byun

At the same point in his presidency as Barack Obama is now, George W. Bush was contemplating rescuing his foreign policy by surging troops into Iraq. President Obama is pondering how to salvage his domestic policy.

American politics and not a few doctors’ offices have this week been convulsed by the myriad failures of the Affordable Care Act, the revolution in health insurance that carries the president’s name: Obamacare.

Republicans are jubilant; this shows the limitations of big government. Democrats are fearful; their 2014 mid-term prospects hang on Obamacare’s success. It is still early doors, of course. Initial IT problems will be overcome.

Harder to reconcile is Obama’s ambition with his apparent haplessness. His ambitions are well documented and the source of both his proponents’ affection and his opponents’ distrust.

Trickier to explain is Obama’s variable performance in pursuit of those ambitions. We have seen snatches of this before. His first debate with Mitt Romney was a case study in presidential enervation. The incumbent seemed not to care.

Of more lasting consequence has been his failure to win over a single moderate Republican to his cause - not one. GOP intransigence is, of course, part of that story. But so is the president.

The men on which he models himself worked cleverly and tirelessly to secure consensus. Abraham Lincoln, despised by many of his opponents and assassinated by one of them, was a master at placation and, ultimately, at reconciliation.

Lyndon Johnson worked the phones like no president before or since. He could cajole, persuade, amuse, all in the service of building coalitions that made his legislative agenda possible.

Obama wants to be a new LBJ, to continue his legacy of large federal programs, but without the necessary effort. Instead, he has reverted to a boilerplate Democratic posture, blaming his implacable opponents as a substitute for working with their more moderate colleagues.

The recent government shutdown was ended not by negotiation and quid pro quo but by Republican submission. How quickly that pyrrhic victory has been forgotten in the debacle over Obamacare.

I have spent the past week in Texas - one of the most reliably Democratic states until the 1960s. Despite caricatures of Texans as gun-wielding, capital-punishing, Obama-hating racists, the state’s history and current political composition illustrate a great diversity.

Texas was blue and segregationist for most of its history but is now increasingly red and Hispanic. It produces champions of both left and right. Democrat Wendy Davis was lauded for standing, literally, for 11 hours, in defiance of anti-abortion legislation. Republican Ted Cruz is the face of Tea Party opposition to Davis-style Democrats. Both Davis and Cruz are vying for the Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year award.

Both camps and every Texan I have encountered this week are amazed at the ineptitude with which President Obama’s “signature legislation” has been “rolled out”.

The “technology president”, who came to office with Blackberry in hand, did not do basic due diligence on the software that would carry his social revolution into effect. Worse, he has contributed a read-my-lips moment to the general scene of disorganisation.

Since passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Obama has promised that nobody would have to give up healthcare cover with which they were happy. “Period.” It turns out over 5% of Americans targeted by Obamacare [will be obliged](http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/31/politics/obamacare-state-coverage-varies/index.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+rss%2Fcnn_allpolitics+(RSS%3A+Politics) to switch to plans they do not prefer.

This scenario should have been game-played over the last two years. Obama should have calibrated his defence of the Act that carries his name accordingly. IT consultants should have been relentlessly grilled on how the insurance exchanges website would function.

None of this happened. Supporters of universal healthcare are bemused, its opponents filled with an I-told-you-so condescension. Where was Obama in all this?

Rather than the master social engineer of Tea Party caricature, the president has been missing in action. His complacency, not his activism, has become legend. Political scientists and historians will take years to understand why.

Let me offer a premature, undocumented answer: Obama is bored by the office he holds. He cares little about the basic competencies necessary to effective executive power. He relies on the enthusiasm of staff who remember the 2008 “change” candidate, a man who never arrived in the Oval Office.

The energy that Alexander Hamilton said was essential to the office has been replaced by enervation.

Obama’s intellect, so refreshing given the assumed bone-headedness of his predecessor, has morphed into an apathetic detachment. He roused the world to anger over Syrian atrocities then quietly dropped the issue when he realised Russian machinations would make for an easier life.

He claims ignorance of espionage committed by his own National Security Agency. Others labour while he is in repose. He won the government shutdown fight by refusing to compromise and then squandered the political capital by not interrogating the web designers of Obamacare.

Obama wants to effect great programmatic liberalism but avoids the hard yards necessary. He favours expansive, all-inclusive government - the one thing to which all Americans belong, he claimed - but delivers up federal schemes which confuse men and women avid to use them.

His ambition seems to have ended at winning the presidency. His underperformance in the job itself will fascinate scholars for years to come.

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