The President Leads

How Barack got his health care groove back.

Since I’ve been quite critical of the President in the past few weeks, credit where credit is due: this is change we can believe in:

Congressional aides say they think Obama’s team wanted to steer clear of any fallout if the negotiations collapsed and health care died.

Aides said Obama seemed to be showing willpower to go about health care the hard way and giving specific direction to Congress instead of sticking to the broad principles he’d been outlining for nearly a year.

This appears to be a pattern: Rahm screws things up and pushes Obama to fecklessness, but at the end of the day, Obama remembers why people voted for him — and what he believes in himself.  It was Obama, over the objections of his advisors who decided to push for this in the first place.

And of course it helps that given a sliver of a chance, the Republicans overplayed their hand and made it abundantly clear how obstructionist they are.

We’ll see.  I’m still very worried over whether Nancy Pelosi can get the votes for this thing if Stupak and his minions defect over abortion language.  But she has shown herself to be a good vote-counter, and if the White House is pushing this hard, it’s not expecting to lose.  I hope so.  So do 30 million people without health insurance, or anyone who has been denied care over pre-existing conditions.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

11 thoughts on “The President Leads”

  1. "This appears to be a pattern: Rahm screws things up and pushes Obama to fecklessness…"

    Jonathan, what, exactly, is your evidence for this?

  2. Larry, Rahm tried to dissuade Obama from even pursuing health care last year. Three weeks ago, he said that health care was going to be put on the back burner. Late last year, he sent up trial balloons about dropping Dawn Johnsen and Craig Becker, after not getting around to getting many administration positions filled. Now, I take Mitch's point that the Cossacks work for the Czar, but on the health care side it was Rahm always saying go-slow, no-enemies-on-the-right, and on the appointments side that's the Chief of Staff's damn JOB; the President himself can't be in the trenches on that stuff. So I think I'm on pretty firm ground here.

  3. “This appears to be a pattern: Rahm screws things up and pushes Obama to fecklessness…”

    Jonathan, what, exactly, is your evidence for this?

  4. Jonathan, I'm not as clued in to the specifics as you are. That said, it seems to me that the administration's "go-slow, no-enemies-on-the-right" approach in a variety of areas derives fundamentally from the President's own values and his efforts (successful or not) to push for a strategic shift in how we deal with political conflict to reach better outcomes all around. I could characterize our current Iran policy as "go-slow, no-enemies-on-the-right" with equal justification; I don't think that's worked very well either but I appreciate that it has made it clearer who is the problem here and maybe Obama will be able to use that to our benefit going forward. And maybe that will happen on health care as well.

    Regarding appointments, I do blame Emanuel for a number of badly-vetted people, in my view totally unqualified by virtue of their worldviews, who were put forward (in jobs that required confirmation or not). Freeman and Jones, for example. Admittedly, I don't know much about Johnson or Becker (and in any case I'm inclined to be in favor of pro-labor appointments). Oddly, I think Emanuel has had a hard time preventing other people from making end-runs to convince the President to do things that have hurt him (and us). For example, going to Europe to lobby for the Olympics to come to Chicago. But I suspect that the advisor and conduit in those cases is one that will always be able to circumvent any chief of staff.

  5. Didn’t we see this pattern in the campaign?

    (1) Something happens that makes Obama look really bad

    (2) He spends some agonizing period responding weakly or not at all

    (3) He strikes back in a way that lets him retake the political advantage

    My sense is that Obama just uses “The Tortoise and the Hare” as a model for his leadership style.

  6. There are not many things that scare Emmanuel, but the fear of failure on health care is probably one of the things that breaks his armor: he lived through the Clinton failure on health care and it's fair to say that he still has PTSD on the issue. Among the many reasons for the failure of health care in 1994, one that stands out is Hillary Clinton's utter naivete about how to deal with Congress. It has occurred to me many times that Obama's approach in being overly deferential to Congress is fully informed by Emmanuel's scars.

  7. Jonathan Zasloff says:

    "Larry, Rahm tried to dissuade Obama from even pursuing health care last year. Three weeks ago, he said that health care was going to be put on the back burner. Late last year, he sent up trial balloons about dropping Dawn Johnsen and Craig Becker, after not getting around to getting many administration positions filled. Now, I take Mitch’s point that the Cossacks work for the Czar, but on the health care side it was Rahm always saying go-slow, no-enemies-on-the-right, and on the appointments side that’s the Chief of Staff’s damn JOB; the President himself can’t be in the trenches on that stuff. So I think I’m on pretty firm ground here."

    No, because you're assuming that Rahm is making the decisions. For example, if the chief of staff publicly says that the major item of the first year is to be put on the back burner, when the president wants to keep it as a #1 priority, what does that say about the chief of staff?

  8. It wouldn't surprise me if THIS chief of staff presumes a certain level of influence more than most. But you're right, there is no way for any of us to know for sure. I have tuned out a lot since the Senate passed its HCR bill, because of my firm conviction that much of what is going on is Kabuki theater.

  9. After the failure of the Clinton health-care effort would-be sages said that the problem was that Clinton tried to present Congress with a complete proposal, instead of setting out principles and letting Congress fill in the details.

    So, now Obama has tried that. No go.

    I say it's now clear that the only way to get health care reform is to be willing and able to shove it down peoples' throats. Actually, I thought that was clear in 1993, but that's just me.

    "Now, I take Mitch’s point that the Cossacks work for the Czar, but on the health care side it was Rahm always saying go-slow, no-enemies-on-the-right, and on the appointments side that’s the Chief of Staff’s damn JOB; the President himself can’t be in the trenches on that stuff. So I think I’m on pretty firm ground here."

    Sorry, no. You're on quicksand. The Cossacks still and always work for the Czar.

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