Mr. Obama Goes to Washington
At the end of a long day, we sat down in Obama's Capitol Hill office. It was time to talk specifics, so I asked him to explain his "healthcare for hybrids" auto-industry proposal. Why not simply push to strengthen fuel-efficiency mandates?
"There is a difference between an opinion writer or thinker and a legislator," he said, making sure to note that he is also a co-sponsor of bills that would mandate better fuel efficiency. "I a lot of times don't get an opportunity to frame legislation in ways that I would exactly prefer. I have to take into account what is possible within the constraints of the institution." Fuel-efficiency standards, he said, provided a good example of what he was talking about. Michigan Democrats "Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow are as progressive a set of senators as you can hope to find," he continued. "But if you have a conversation with them about standards, they are adamantly opposed. That's something that I've got to take into account if I'm going to be able to actually get something accomplished."
This theme had been reiterated all day: Obama is all about the art of the possible within the system. "This is a classic conflict within the left: Are you a revolutionary or are you a reformist?" Obama said. "I am less concerned with the labels that are placed on me in terms of what kind of leader I am, and I am more interested in results.... I think within the institutional structures we have, we can significantly improve the life chances of ordinary Americans." I asked him to give me some specific examples of what he meant. Is a proposal to convert America's healthcare system to one in which the government is the single payer for all services revolutionary or reformist? "Anything that Canada does can't be entirely revolutionary--it's Canada," Obama joked. "When I drive through Toronto, it doesn't look like a bunch of Maoists." Even so, Obama said that although he "would not shy away from a debate about single-payer," right now he is "not convinced that it is the best way to achieve universal healthcare."
Obama has a remarkable ability to convince you that his positions are motivated purely by principles, not tactical considerations. This skill is so subtle and impressive, it resembles Luke Skywalker's mastery of the Force. It's a powerful tool for a Democratic Party that often emanates calculation rather than conviction. "I don't think in ideological terms. I never have," Obama said, continuing on the healthcare theme. "Everybody who supports single-payer healthcare says, 'Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.' That represents 1 million, 2 million, 3 million jobs of people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places. What are we doing with them? Where are we employing them?"
Shifting back to how he sees himself in the Senate, Obama seemed to amend his previous statement about what kind of leadership progressives can expect from him. "I am agnostic in terms of the models that solve these problems," he said. "If the only way to solve a problem is structural, institutional change, then I will be for structural, institutional change. If I think we can achieve those same goals within the existing institutions, then I am going to try to do that, because I think it's going to be easier to do and less disruptive and less costly and less painful.... I think everybody in this country should have basic healthcare. And what I'm trying to figure out is how to get from here to there." He went on to tell me about his support for other structural changes such as public financing of elections, forcing broadcasters to offer free airtime for candidates, adding strong labor protections to trade pacts and major efforts to create a more just tax system.
Obama is telling the truth--he's not opposed to structural changes at all. However, he appears to be interested in fighting only for those changes that fit within the existing boundaries of what's considered mainstream in Washington, instead of using his platform to redefine those boundaries. This posture comes even as polls consistently show that Washington's definition of mainstream is divorced from the rest of the country's (for example, politicians' refusal to debate the war even as polls show that Americans want the troops home).
Obama's deference to these boundaries was hammered home to me when our discussion touched on the late Senator Paul Wellstone. Obama said the progressive champion was "magnificent." He also gently but dismissively labeled Wellstone as merely a "gadfly," in a tone laced with contempt for the senator who, for instance, almost single-handedly prevented passage of the bankruptcy bill for years over the objections of both parties. This clarified Obama's support for the Hamilton Project, an organization formed by Citigroup chair Robert Rubin and other Wall Street Democrats to fight back against growing populist outrage within the party. And I understood why Beltway publications and think tanks have heaped praise on Obama and want him to run for President. It's because he has shown a rare ability to mix charisma and deference to the establishment.
Barack Obama makes a convincing case that he is not overly motivated by political machinations. Many have accused him of Hillary Clinton-style positioning for a potential presidential run. But that kind of calculation does not appear to be in play, at least not right now--and Obama chafes when anyone implies the opposite. "You should always assume that when I cast a vote or make a statement it is because it is what I believe in," he said. "The thing that bothers me is the assumption that if I make a judgment that's different from yours, then it must mean I am less progressive or my goals are different, meaning I must be not really committed to helping people but rather I am trying to triangulate or drift toward the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council]."
Still, there's no question that his passions are confined by intense caution. Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen, tells the story of how, after Obama voted for the class-action bill, he attended a meeting of public-interest groups. "We were worried about what his vote indicated about him for the future," she said. "And he told us, 'Sometimes you have to trim your sails.' And I asked myself, Trim your sails for what? You just got elected by a wide margin--what are you trimming your sails for?"
Obama will often be a reliable liberal vote, and he can give one hell of a speech. But we should believe him when he downplays our expectations. He says he's "a work in progress," but he's in an institution that tends to stifle greatness. As comic Jon Stewart said, "Everybody thought Barack Obama was going to [inspire people] when he came to Washington, but, you know, the Senate seems like the place where smart people go to die."