The official script for Barack Obama’s celebrated return to the White House on Tuesday was all about the Affordable Care Act. And Obama stuck to it, mostly, by focusing on the law’s accomplishments and the ongoing efforts to build on that success.
But if you listened closely, you also heard the former president address a second topic: the difficulties of governing in a world where so many political forces are arrayed against you.
In this part of the speech, Obama seemed to be addressing his longtime critics in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
And whether or not you agree with his take, the subject feels especially relevant now as President Joe Biden and his allies struggle to get their agenda through Congress.
The Left’s Ambivalence Over Obama’s Presidency
The Obama presidency has long provoked ambivalence among some progressives, especially on social media, on the theory that he was too quick to scale back ambitions, too timid about confronting Republicans, too solicitous of big money and too eager to cut deals.
The Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” is a big part of this narrative. Had Obama fought harder, the thinking goes, he could have gotten Democrats to pass a law with more generous insurance subsidies, government negotiation of drug prices and a “public option” with cheaper, more reliable coverage than private insurance offers.
On Tuesday at the White House, Obama readily acknowledged the law’s shortcomings, noting that millions in America still have no health insurance or struggle with high premiums and out-of-pocket costs. But, he said, “we had to make compromises, we didn’t get everything we wanted. … in history, what you see is that it’s important to get something started, to plant a flag, to lay a foundation for further progress.”
In that conversation, he talked about underestimating the depth of Republican opposition and the need to address institutional congressional problems like the filibuster. At the same time, he defended (and celebrated) the law “because it passed, and 20 million people got health insurance, and it’s still there.”
My own view, for what it’s worth, is that there’s plenty of ground for second-guessing individual decisions, whether by Obama or other party leaders at the time. It’s not so easy to imagine better decisions producing a dramatically more ambitious piece of legislation — the special interests were just so powerful, the legislative gauntlet so difficult, the political environment so toxic.
It’s easy to forget now, but the whole effort nearly fell apart multiple times. The final legislation cleared Congress by the thinnest of margins — and that was only after concessions to Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, the two most conservative senators in the Democratic caucus.
You might say that passing anything at all under these circumstances was a miracle.
And that brings us to today.
The Strategy Democrats Tried This Time
Over the past few years, the progressive critique of Obama has loomed large in the collective Democratic consciousness, with obvious effects on both the 2020 Democratic primary debate campaign and, more recently, the deliberations over what became the “Build Back Better” legislation.
The initial starting point for that legislation was a package to address climate change, early childhood education and several other priorities — at a cost to the federal government of $3.5 trillion over 10 years. That figure was actually a compromise of sorts: Bernie Sanders, leader of the progressive wing, wanted to spend $6 trillion.
Compromise was inevitable, and progressives, notwithstanding their reputation as strategic nihilists, made clear their willingness to do so. The hope was simply that, with such an ambitious opening bid, the final deal would be more ambitious, too.
But just like Obama had to contend with Lieberman and Nelson, Biden has to get bills through a Senate where conservative Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have a veto. And at the moment, negotiations are stalled because Manchin has said even a dramatically smaller bill is too big for his taste. There’s a real possibility Democrats end up passing nothing at all.
To be clear, that’s not the end of the story. Democrats could still find a consensus and, if they do, they might very well approve legislation that includes provisions to shore up the Affordable Care Act, which is what Obama was at the White House to promote. But any legislation that passes is sure to fall well short of what Democrats initially hoped to pass.
Progressives and other supporters of ambitious legislation would be disappointed by that — and that would be understandable, given the very real, very urgent needs they are trying to address. But as Obama reminded his audience on Tuesday, the best you can do sometimes is to lay the foundation for future change while helping a lot of people along the way.
“Everybody feels frustrated sometimes about what takes place in this town — progress feels way too slow,” Obama said. “Victories are often incomplete, and in a country as big and as diverse as ours, consensus never comes easy. What the Affordable Care Act shows us is that … if you’re persistent, stay with it and work through the obstacles and the criticism and continually improve where you fall short, you can make America better.”