What Obama Isn't Saying
The apolitical politics of progressivism.
Feb 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 20 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
"I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.”
The words are those of President Barack Obama speaking to Congress on health care reform on September 9, 2009. They contain the secret of his appeal—and the cause of his first-year failure.
His appeal from the first has been to be beyond ordinary politics. Ordinary politics is partisan politics, and to be beyond it is to be nonpartisan or, as sophisticates say, postpartisan. Obama has the cool of a nonpartisan, quite unlike the late Edward Kennedy, who was a paragon of partisan heat and sweat. But beyond politics is not just a mood, it’s a place and a situation. Obama’s aspiration, the goal of his politics, is to put the country in a situation that no longer requires parties, when at last partisan rhetoric has accomplished its task, advocacy is inapt, sympathy and zeal are no longer needed, and postpartisan cool is correct.
Postpartisan cool is not, however, the mere sign of an intellectual fad such as postmodern relativism. One can see Obama’s aspiration in the first Democratic president, Thomas Jefferson, who founded not only the Democratic party but also the idea of party government in America. After forming the first publicly avowed party against the Federalists, he proceeded to announce in his first Inaugural Address that “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” “Republicans” meant Democratic-Republicans, later Democrats. Yet the best word to describe Obama is progressive, for -nonpartisanship in politics is inherent in the idea of progress.
What every progressive wants is to put the particular issue he espouses beyond political dispute. Obama wanted, and as his first State of the Union address showed still wants, to put health care beyond politics so that he can be the last president to be concerned with it. He did concede in that speech “philosophical differences” between the parties, “that will always cause us to part ways.” But he did not say what these differences are and seemed to assume that they would only infect “short-term politics” by serving the ambitions of party leaders. True leadership in Republicans would require them to cooperate in the reform despite their ambitions and their philosophy. Once the bill is enacted, health care need only be administered by experts whose main task will be to adjust (i.e., expand) its extent and to cover its costs. The principle will have been decided. It becomes an entitlement that is no longer open to political controversy; it is secure from second thoughts prompted by reactionaries.
But what is the principle? Obama acts and speaks as if there were no question of principle, but of course there is one, and it is perfectly obvious to the public: Should the government take over health care or should it be left to the private sphere? A government takeover does not require the single-payer system of Canada and Britain; it follows easily enough from the government’s guarantee of health care to all. This general guarantee is quite different from regulation or particular requirements on private parties because it gives the government responsibility for the result and permits, even demands, that it interfere to make health care available to all. “Available to all” is a phrase that at the least creates pressure to make the best health care equally available. This is government takeover in principle if not in administration—which is not to say that a decentralized administration would make no difference.
Government takeover or not is the issue at stake, but Obama has attempted to blur it. He says that the question is not whether government is big or small but whether it “works.” This is manifest evasion, as it can work either way and the question is which is better. Obama admitted that he could have done a better job with rhetoric, but at the same time he implied that he had been defeated only by rhetoric. In fact, it was not he but his Republican opponents who posed the issue of principle, for Obama was looking ahead beyond the passage of the health care bill to the time when it would no longer be disputed. He advanced the end to the beginning and middle of the process, as if there was little or nothing to be debated, only how the nonpartisan end was to be accomplished. For example, the “public option” of government health insurance was sold as an item of consumer choice as if it were quite comparable to private insurance while at the same time serving as the standard for such choice, to establish what is good enough and cheap enough for all. Instead of raising the issue of government vs. private control, this nonpartisan strategy made government control appear to be another option in the health insurance market rather than regulator of the market.