Barack Obama left for Martha's Vineyard with his presidency on the ropes and his health plan on the precipice of defeat. Or so you would conclude from the instant press analysis, the rising disaffection on the left, and the nihilistic opposition's confidence that its appeals to falsehood and fear are working. If you believed what you read, you would think that the week on the Vineyard was less a vacation than a search for temporary sanctuary. It's proof that those who don't remember history—or even what they themselves wrote a few months ago—are doomed to repeat their own mistakes.
Reporters apparently regard failure as the hot story; they have forgotten that FDR's success and Reagan's—and JFK's during the Cuban Missile Crisis—gripped public attention. The story of least resistance, for the moment, is that Obama's "yes, we can" has been blocked -- by the party of "no," and by a Democratic Congress that proves "no, they won’t." Last Friday, the Politico headlined: "Obama's Big Bang Goes Bust"—and then suggested that the "DNA" of the fevered, sometimes gun-toting crowds at the town halls, a deluded and distinct minority of Americans, show that this is "fundamentally a center-right country." A few months ago, the same online publication reported that the stimulus bill "could easily get bogged down in the House-Senate Conference Committee"—just eleven days before it passed the Congress. Similarly, New York Times White House Correspondent Peter Baker, who's just written that Obama has to try to "turn around a summer of setbacks," warned in January that instead of being approved "within weeks," the economic recovery plan "could require more time and negotiation than Democrats once hoped." The President signed the legislation into law within weeks—on Feb. 17.
This is a generalized phenomenon that reflects not only a tendency to gravitate toward "bad news," but the pressure, in the age of cable and instant analysis, to report it prematurely. Increasingly, the holy grail of political journalism is to get ahead of the curve, to call the game at half-time or in the third quarter. This results in the press's version of the Red Queen's jurisprudence in Alice in Wonderland—"first the verdict, then the trial." Here the prevailing ethos seems to be first the verdict, then the vote in Congress.
Meanwhile, the president's natural allies on the progressive side of politics are carping from a different angle. Their complaints have been there from the start, ranging from disappointment that Obama didn't rush to prosecute Bush administration officials to an insistent chorus that the $800 billion stimulus was too small. The notion appears to be that the president ought to stubbornly push against the rocks, not maneuver around them. The likely outcome in the stimulus debate would have been defeat and a slide into depression; but as Paul Krugman—who himself has blamed Obama for a lack of "audacity"—has observed, today the progressive frustration manifests itself in "people who voted for Mr. Obama, but now dismiss the stimulus as a total waste of money." Krugman adds that what they're really objecting to is "the bailouts." But whatever their excesses, and some were all but inevitable in a moment of crisis, where would the economy be if the government had failed to stabilize the financial sector and the banks and simply let the auto industry collapse?
What has brought the simmering discontent among some liberals to a boil is the president's apparent willingness to compromise on health care, perhaps replacing the public option with some form of co-operative. Add to that the rising sense of grievance about his patience in negotiating with Republicans: Why should he still be trying to work with the evidently duplicitous Sen. Chuck Grassley? This misses the point—in fact, two of them. First, the real dividend of negotiations is unlikely to be substantial Republican support; but the attempt to find some middle ground is essential to bringing along enough moderate Blue Dog Democrats to pass the bill in the Senate—either by a bare 60 votes, with one or two Republicans on board, or through the fallback of budget reconciliation, where the majority can't be filibustered. Second, isn't a compromise health bill, maybe with some form of public option or co-op, better than no bill at all? Some strategists like James Carville have opined that Democrats should yield almost nothing and take the issue to the voters. But we've had the issue for 60 years and more; what good has that done the tens of millions who lack insurance or have bad policies?
If Obama takes some vacation time to read, he'll re-discover what he probably already knows: Progressive presidents always face progressive dissent. At the height of the New Deal, FDR was attacked for his timidity by John Dewey and the great American historian Charles Beard, who complained that: "Banks have not been nationalized, nor the railways taken over by the government." JFK was scorned for delaying civil rights legislation until 1963—when events and the public mood made it conceivable that the effort could succeed.
Finally, as he left for vacation, the president briefly left behind a GOP garrisoned behind their Maginot line of implacable and increasingly confident opposition. From the respectable Republican redoubt, Peggy Noonan happily opined that it was time to "pull the plug on Obama care"—and presumably, on the Americans who can't afford to get sick or the medical attention to stay well. The Republican nihilism—they have no health care alternative—also continued to travel the lowest of low roads. In an attempt to scare the elderly, the Republican National Committee and its risible Chairman Michael Steele called for a "Seniors Health Care Bill of Rights" to prevent them from being "bankrupte[d]" by the Obama reforms. This is the height of expedient hypocrisy from a party that virulently opposed Medicare—and would have let generations of seniors be bankrupted by illness. They aren't now, but they are susceptible to the fear-mongering. Obama will have to reassure them—and he will. But there's something mean-spirited and nasty about hearing some of those over 65 (and I've passed that benchmark myself) seeking to deny coverage and care to others. Listen to what one of them said last week: What Obama "is trying to do...is take from the senior citizens and give to the poor and the illegal immigrants"—a Lou Hobbesian (I mean Dobbsian) charge that happens to be flatly untrue.
Medicare wasn't supposed to be a barrier to universal coverage, but a step toward it—and ultimately, in fact this Fall, I think it will be. Buried in the avalanche of poll numbers are the two most salient statistics. The President has a 57 percent approval rating in the new Washington Post ABC poll; he has the credibility not only to reassure the elderly, but to rebuke the Republican lies as we near the decisive moment. This is even truer in light of the other finding in that poll: Only 21 percent of Americans believe the Republicans will make "the right decisions" for "the country's future." Nihilism has its price.
So does instant journalism—the risk, too seldom acknowledged afterwards, of being flat-out wrong. (If I am on health reform, I'll say it here and I'll say it clear.) One of the nation's smartest reporters refuses to engage in the pre-mature verdict rendering, although he's reluctant to openly criticize colleagues who do. He calculates that Obama will secure health insurance reform—and that if he returns to Martha's Vineyard next August, the issue, the economy, and the political climate will look brighter for him and Democrats and decidedly bleak for Republicans.
As the president headed for the Vineyard, Hurricane Bill was passing by two hundred miles out to sea, but pounding the island with its outer bands of high waves and wind. Perhaps it was a reminder of how to read the storm of great political battles over great issues. For as the president's plane landed, the squalls passed and the sun came out. He'll be back in Washington, and out on the road, next week. The fundamentals point to a good forecast for health insurance reform. One other thing is clear: most of the time, the height of the storm is not the best time to predict next month's political weather.