Now that the dust is settling around the Supreme Court's decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, I wonder if those progressive supporters of Obama whose enthusiasm has cooled somewhat, will recognize that they got as much reform as they possibly could get passed by the Congress, and upheld by the Supreme Court. Those who fall in the disappointed and disillusioned camp like to think that with a more uncompromising, aggressive approach, President Obama could have accomplished more liberal reform. Considering how difficult it was to pass even this moderate reform, it's hard to imagine that a more progressive bill, such as one including a public option, would have had more success. But the people I'm talking about cling to the idea that the president did not need to water down the health care bill so much to get it passed. They imagine that past champions of progressive reform got their programs enacted without so many concessions.
A look at history casts doubt on those assumptions. There was a piece in the New York Times yesterday, for example, called How Liberals Win, comparing the deals that FDR and LBJ made with corporate power in order to enact their reforms, with the deals the Obama administration struck with pharmaceutical companies to obtain their support for health insurance reform. Obama's initiative may have been crucial to obtaining passage of the bill. Contrast Clinton's failed efforts at health care reform when he first took office, which fell victim to a fierce and unrelenting advertising campaign by the industry. Clinton lost that battle because he had no allies in the health care industry. Obama did not make that mistake. That's one reason he was able to get major reform passed that Democrats had tried and failed to accomplish for a hundred years.
Other examples of what it really takes to make progressive reform possible appear in Robert Caro's latest installment of his Lyndon Johnson biography. Caro details exactly how Johnson was able to get two signature Kennedy promises enacted after Kennedy's assassination--the income tax cuts, and the Civil Rights Act. Both those bills were stalled in Congress in the fall of 1963, and nobody in the Kennedy administration seemed to have a clue about how to move them forward. How did Johnson do it? It was not just by browbeating and arm-twisting his opponents, although he did do some of that. With the tax cut bill, he saw that the only way forward was to placate Senator Harry Byrd, Chair of the the Senate Finance Committee, by making severe budget cuts that year-anathema to liberals. The only way to get cloture on the Civil Rights bill was to obtain the votes of a sufficient number of Republicans in both the House and Senate, to make up for the no votes of nearly all Southern Democrats. Johnson did that by appealing to Republicans' sense of history, continually reminding Republicans that theirs was the party of Lincoln.
Obama's critics on the left have criticized him for attempting to make deals with the Republicans, especially the budget compromise that prevented the government from going into default last year. If they think there was ever a president who got what he wanted without making deals, they will have to look pretty hard to find examples. Both Roosevelt and Johnson, who left the largest legacies of reform in modern times, despite their large Democratic majorities in Congress, were constantly making deals. Ronald Reagan, who left a legacy of wide-reaching changes in a conservative direction, was also a notorious practitioner of compromise, which is how he got major changes in tax and spending policies, and immigration reform, through the Congress.