Overemphasizing Obama

The limits of what health care can tell us about the president

Dan Froomkin’s first item at The Huffington Post, which appeared on Monday, has drawn some mild criticism from an unlikely source: the liberal blogosphere. And in this case, Froomkin’s critics have the better of the argument.

Froomkin opens his piece by arguing that as the health care debate wends its way toward a conclusion this fall, “We’re finally going to get to know the real President Obama.” As he tells it, as lobbyists and congressmen do their worst to the proposals for reform, one of two scenarios will emerge: “Obama-as-community-organizer,” in which “the community’s needs are finally met, but in a way such that even those who had thwarted the people’s will are allowed to save face,” or “Obama-as-pushover,” in which the president makes so many compromises and concessions that nothing worthwhile is left. And this isn’t just a matter of strategy—it’s also, in a sense, a matter of morality. At the end of the tale, we’ll be able “to take the measure of the man,” Froomkin writes. “Did he stick to the values he campaigned on? Or did he barter them away? And if so, did he get a good deal?”

Froomkin’s jabs at Obama for not living up to the standard he promised on government transparency are spot-on (and his colleague Ryan Grim is doing good work by pushing for details of the administration’s deals with industry groups). But in his casting of the health care debate as a morality play—and specifically, as a morality play starring the president—he is giving in to a temptation that is seductive but also misleading.

That’s because, as the bloggers Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias have pointed out, an overemphasis on the role of the president obscures where the real action on health care is. Writes Klein:

Compared with the structural power of Congress to block legislative change, the tendency of the public to fear legislative change and the capacity of industry to fight legislative change, the president just isn’t that powerful. A perfect performance by Obama may, in other words, not even be enough to pass an imperfect bill, much less a perfect bill.

Klein may go a little too far here in excusing Obama, but the basic point holds. Yglesias, meanwhile, adds a useful distinction:

The fact of the matter, though, is that legislating is about who controls the veto points… On foreign policy and some other matters the president has tons of discretion and it’s a different story. But big-picture domestic legislation in the modern era is controlled by Congress.

The political scientist and blogger John Sides, in an interview last week, made a similar point. Political events are, as a rule, “interpreted in terms of how will this affect Obama, how will this affect his presidency, is he strengthened or weakened, is he acting strong or weak – all that kind of incessant stuff,” Sides said. That frame leads to a “fetishization of executive power, [which] is not what the Founders intended,” and, more importantly, “is not the way that the system works.” The president of the United States is the most powerful man in the world, but domestic policy outcomes are not driven foremost by his will, his strategy, or his integrity. There are simply too many other factors—and too many other actors—in play.

Most journalists must, in some sense, know this. So why do we get so much coverage that overemphasizes the importance of the president? For one thing, there’s at least a grain of truth to it—the fact that a president’s persuasive powers are often exaggerated does not mean they’re non-existent. For another, presidents—and Obama in particular—are simply more compelling characters than congresspeople. And they’re certainly more compelling, to most readers and reporters, than the complex, convoluted sausage-making process by which legislation is actually created. Also, Obama himself has encouraged this presidential focus. During his campaign Obama raised expectations for what could be accomplished on health care, and promised that his election would herald a new way of doing business in Washington. By giving him top responsibility for results, journalists are, in a sense, taking him at his word.

But while the focus on the president is understandable, it risks detracting attention, and scrutiny, from the key players in Congress who, with hundreds of little decisions and deals, are driving the outcome of this debate. Those men and women aren’t celebrities, and they belong to an institution of which little is expected. But they have just as much agency, and should be held just as accountable, as the man in the White House.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.