Toward the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term, a friend of Vice President Bush encouraged him to think carefully about what a Bush presidency should look like. According to Time, Bush responded, “Oh, the vision thing.” Fairly or unfairly, this phrase came to characterize the Bush 41 tenure. Despite his impressive résumé spanning three decades in government, he seemed not to have a clear view of what he wanted to do.
When Barack Obama campaigned for the White House in 2008, that hardly seemed like his problem. Obama would take in the whole sweep of American history in his speeches to suggest that his candidacy was its culmination. His heavy-handed propaganda—from the Greek columns to Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster—suggested a man with a vision surplus.
In the sixth year of his presidency, it is clear that Obama does not have much of a vision at all. Sure, he is a man of the left and possesses a commitment to its goals; he thinks government should grow larger and taxes should increase. Beyond that, he does not seem to have a firm sense of the reforms he should implement, how to implement them, how he fits into the constitutional schema, what a sensible U.S. foreign policy should be or how to execute it.
This is not to say that the White House does not offer positions on the issues. We are inundated with Obama positions. We are also treated periodically to longer “think pieces” from sycophantic authors granted extraordinary access to reinforce the point that this is a president deeply engaged in the issues of the day, struggling to bring order from chaos.
Yet the constant positioning and propagandizing belie deep-rooted ambiguities in this administration, which—it must be noted—has taken flak from left and right for years. Radical academic Cornel West recently suggested that Obama is a corporatist stooge, while Rand Paul fretted about the “socialist nightmare” the president is creating. Some might think these critiques accidentally demonstrate that the president is down-the-center. More likely they point to the absence of “the vision thing.” Sometimes he’s a corporate crony, sometimes a socialist; it all depends on what side of the bed he wakes up on.
Consider health care. If any issue might suggest an Obama vision, this would be it. But what, really, is Obamacare? It is quite unlike Medicare or Social Security. Both programs—despite their shortcomings—are conscientious mixes of policy ideals and political realities, crafted by men with clear visions. Look carefully at both programs, and you can see that vision, not only of what the proper policy is, but how to get it through Congress and build public support.
Obamacare exhibits none of these qualities. It is a bizarre Rube Goldberg contraption with no clear idea at its core. The exchanges are intended to promote competition while the Medicaid expansion doubles down on single payer. It reins in the insurance companies while the risk corridor program shovels billions to them in bailout cash. It expands coverage for prescription drugs for seniors while simultaneously granting drug companies some exceedingly generous rents.
It is almost as if it were written with no White House input except, “Get me a bill to sign!” The historical record suggests that was more or less the case; apart from tasking his aides to run interference with industry insiders, the president was notably aloof from the proceedings on Capitol Hill. For instance, in a summer 2009 conference call with left-wing bloggers, the president was asked if people would be able to keep their existing insurance. His answer: “You know, I have to say that I am not familiar with the provision you are talking about.” Exactly.
It might in fact be more accurate to call it Pelosicare or Baucuscare. House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus were the two most important agents in getting a bill to the president’s desk. Disengaged from most of the policy details as well as the legislative horse trading, Obama considered his main task to sell the legislation to the country—a task at which he failed miserably.
How about the president’s relationship with Wall Street? On the stump, he often bashes the largest financial firms. Yet since his earliest days in national politics, he has been ready, willing, and able to accept their largesse. In 2008 he outraised John McCain in the financial services industry by more than 40 percent. Signed by Obama in 2010, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill provided a huge payoff to these supposed evil-doers by enshrining “too big to fail” into the law. According to Ron Suskind, Obama initially wanted to break up Citi as a lesson to the rest of the banks, but his corporate-friendly advisers—above all Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner—never followed through on this order, and the president did not pursue the matter.
How about the DREAM Act? Can the president offer amnesty to the children of illegal immigrants? In 2011, he said he could not. In 2012, he initiated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which did exactly that. Now, there is reportedly a bigger amnesty in the works, even though he just recently disclaimed that power.
The president has shown ambivalence even toward relatively small budget items. Take the Export-Import Bank, which some conservatives have targeted for repeal. Is it “little more than a fund for corporate welfare,” as Obama said in 2008? Or is it a vital program that is “creating all kinds of jobs,” as he said this year?
How about his role in the constitutional system? As a candidate, Obama harangued George W. Bush for presidential overreach, so we might have expected a limited executive footprint. Yet from signing statements, to a congressionally unauthorized air campaign against Libya, to ad hoc rewrites of Obamacare, this president has not been demure. Except when he has been. How else to explain his sudden commitment to congressional authorization for a strike on Syria last summer? Then again, the administration has recently suggested it might not need a go-ahead from Congress to bomb Syria after all!
A key difference between Obama and his two most liberal predecessors—FDR and LBJ—is this: All three mastered the flowery and vague rhetoric of political campaigns, but FDR and LBJ followed through with specific programs and smart legislative strategies to turn their rhetoric into law. Neither FDR nor LBJ was a wonk—they outsourced the details to experts like Rex Tugwell and Wilbur Cohen—but they were quite involved in the process from beginning to end, and the final results bear their unmistakable imprimaturs.
Obama does not possess such strong opinions about the whats and hows of public policy. Public option in the health care bill? Take on the big banks? Executive amnesty? FDR and LBJ would have had strong opinions on these questions. Obama’s answer often comes back: definitely maybe. Little wonder that the so-called Obama Doctrine is framed in the negative: Don’t do stupid stuff. A statement about what the country should do is beyond his vocabulary.
Oftentimes, pundits blame rigid party polarization for the lack of compromise in Washington, but what if the problem is really Obama’s inability to see how both sides could work together? A president does not need outsized congressional majorities to get a few big things done. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton demonstrated that all it takes is a leader with the vision and skills to make the most of existing common ground. Reagan worked with Dan Rostenkowski to reform the tax code in 1986, while Clinton worked with Newt Gingrich to reform welfare, cut taxes, and restrain Medicare spending.
The current thinking is that common ground has given way to the vile partisanship of House Republicans, but this view withers under scrutiny. Both sides agree on the need for tax reform, and are not that far apart on a framework. Virtually no disinterested observer likes the vast array of farm subsidies; these could be reformed, as they were in 1996 under divided government. Conservative Republicans have recently turned their attention to corporate welfare, which has long been a bane of the left. Further, members of Congress are always bashful about their ties to special interests; a little presidential pressure on this front might yield some long-overdue reforms of the legislative process.
Why couldn’t Obama take the lead on any of these issues? If the country is stalemated on whether the government should grow or shrink, there is still an opportunity to build coalitions on reforming it. This would be good for the liberal project that Obama generally supports. One reason people do not want larger government is that they believe it does a bad job with its current assignments. If Obama spearheaded a campaign to improve various functions of government, people might become amenable to a larger federal presence. Why not go for it?
The answer is “the vision thing.” It includes a mix of traits that Obama does not seem to possess: taking ownership of a public problem, holding fast to core principles, guiding experts toward a solution, making the most of one’s legitimate role in the constitutional system, and building a legislative coalition to transform rhetoric into law. In six years as president, has Obama ever once done that, start to finish?
In the final analysis, Obama’s vision seems to have been for Barack Obama to be in the White House, which he accomplished more than five years ago. No wonder he has so much time to go golfing these days.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.