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.