As health insurance reform legislation makes its painful way through Congress, President Obama is being attacked from both the left and the right. The right is vilifying him for destroying the American free enterprise system, and the left is outraged that he is making deals with drug companies, and compromising cherished liberal principles to gain the favor of Blue Dog Democrats. All of this criticism seems a bit unfair, because none of the bills coming out of the various committees are really "his" bill. The President has tried to accommodate a range of views within the Congress so as to put together a bill that can command a majority. He has had to back down from ideas that he prefers (such as limiting tax deductions as a means of funding the bill) because some of those ideas will not pass. Perhaps that is the very reason he is being attacked. Both passionate supporters as well as opponents of fundamental health care reform would seem to prefer having the President identify more strongly with some specific version of this proposed legislation, and all sides are frustrated with the Administration's continued willingness to compromise.
All this reminded me of hearing recently that one of my former law professors was very disenchanted with Obama during the campaign last year. For the most part, the faculty at the University of Chicago was very supportive of Obama's campaign, but I heard that this one professor did not respect Obama because in his view, Obama had no principles. Now this professor happens to be a guy with very idiosyncratic views of the law, someone who has created an entire mental construct of how the law ought to operate, without regard to whether such a system could actually be put into practice, without regard to economic efficiency, and without regard to whether the results might actually seem fair to most people. Instead this professor had dreamed up an ideal model of a legal system that could only work in his mind, or be taught at law school, and had little relationship with reality.
Barack Obama is the opposite. I believe he does have ideals and principles, but he is entirely grounded in what will work in reality. He doesn't seem to have much use for principles that can't be put into practice. Obama's campaign was never so much about specific policy proposals, as it was about a more inclusive type of politics that aims to accommodate the needs and desires of people on all portions of the political spectrum. Because of that, Obama infuriates doctrinaire idealists on both the right and the left. Critics on the left who believe passionately that single payer is the answer to everything wrong with our health care system can't stand the fact that the Administration gave up on single payer, and might even be willing to compromise on a public option. In their view it would be better to have no reform at all than a reform that sacrifices these principles. Critics on the right who want a more market-based solution are frustrated at the moving target that the Administration is presenting, and are forced to label any reform that is being proposed as socialistic. They too would seem to prefer the status quo to anything being proposed by a Democratic administration and Congress.
We know from the Clinton health care experience that a President who appears too wedded to a proposal that has not sufficiently been attuned to the needs of Congress will not be able to get anything done. The danger for Obama is that if he goes too far in the other direction, being willing to sign his name to anything that can make it through the Congress, he risks being labeled as someone who does not have the passion to fight for what he believes in. That seems to be why he has taken to the stump again, recognizing that he needs to show some fire and commitment to some essential features of the health care reform proposals.