Watching the gun-toting, Nazi-sign-holding town hall crazies, the talk radio charlatans, and the Palin-infected politicos, my first instinct has been to rally around President Obama and defend his handling of the health care debate against this Cuckoo's Nest menagerie.
But my better instinct has prevailed over my protective instinct. It's time to take a cold, hard look at how the president's leadership -- or, more accurately, his lack of leadership -- on health care has helped create the vacuum that allowed these fringe-dwellers and their preposterous claims to dominate the debate.
Recent polls show that while Obama's personal approval rating remains high (57 percent), only 49 percent of the public has confidence that he will make the right decisions -- down 11 percent from April. This means that Americans still like him, but have less faith in his leadership.
Given his incredible skills as a leader, this is deeply ironic. How could someone with a renowned ability to inspire, communicate complex ideas, and connect with voters find himself in this position?
Chalk it up to another of his strengths that seems to have failed him this time around. The president, though a dedicated student of history, has failed to learn the lesson of our nation's most significant political confrontations: they've required single-minded determination and the willingness to battle entrenched opponents until the fight was won.
The 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, the New Deal, Social Security, Medicare, the Voting Rights Act -- each of these required a bloody fight. Only after they were pushed into law, and people saw that they worked, did a consensus grow up around them.
Isaiah Berlin famously laid out two opposing styles of leadership in his essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox." The hedgehog doggedly and relentlessly pursues one big idea. The fox, on the other hand, flits and floats and tries to advance the way Obama has on health care -- by spinning, triangulating, and splitting the difference. And it's this foxy slicing and dicing of the message that the public is truly sick of, and which has created the vacuum that allowed the debate to devolve into nonsense about death panels and socialized medicine (In June, the public option was essential; in August it was "just one sliver" of reform. In September, not negotiating with PhRMA was called "a profound mistake"; in July, he agreed to do just that. Etc, etc, etc.).
There is no better example of what the hedgehog approach to leadership looks like than the way FDR handled the fight over Social Security. The story of how it passed, succinctly laid out by Prof. Jerome Karabel on HuffPost, shows that FDR faced many of the same obstacles Obama is facing, including stiff opposition from within his own party.
At one point, Sen. Bennett "Champ" Clark, a conservative Democrat from Missouri, introduced an amendment to weaken the bill by allowing employers to opt out of the program. It passed with the majority of Democrats voting for it. But FDR knew this would, as Karabel puts it, "fatally undermine" Social Security and vowed to veto any legislation containing the amendment. As Yale Professor Jacob Hacker sums it up, "Social Security passed not because Congress wanted it but because Roosevelt demanded it."
Soon after his election in 1932, FDR told a group of labor leaders who were pushing reformist legislation: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it." Contrast this with Obama, who has told his most avid supporters to settle down and avoid putting pressure on recalcitrant Democrats.
Of course, even if Obama were to summon his formidable grassroots army, as he attempted to do last week, exactly what is it they would be rallying around when knocking on doors or holding house parties? We've heard the mantra that the president wants "choice and competition." But how does he intend to do that? Specifically. He's been way too fuzzy -- and foxy -- on the fundamentals, with his administration delivering mixed messages from the very beginning.
Instead of laying out his vision for reform in unequivocal strokes -- drawing clear lines in the sand on what he will and won't accept in a bill -- Obama's plan is apparently whatever Charles Grassley and Max Baucus and Kent Conrad will accept. The president "guaranteed" he'll get reform done. But we're not worried that there will be no bill to which Obama affixes his signature. We're worried that the bill will be the equivalent of a Social Security bill containing Clark's poison pill amendment. And we are even more worried that the president will sign it, declare victory, and move on.
This is where Obama the pied piper, who builds consensus by charming and seducing, has to give way to Obama the leader who brings about change by laying down the law. This is not an issue where you are going to be able to get all the stakeholders together and have the health care equivalent of a beer summit, with everyone walking away singing Kumbaya. The president needs to drop the delusional notion that there is some perfect plan that will make everyone happy, from insurance companies to PhRMA to the people who want the government to keep its hands off of Medicare.
The consensus will come later, once reform has taken hold. You don't see many Republicans these days willing to come out in favor of repealing Social Security and Medicare. But if those programs weren't already in place, you can bet they'd be fighting against them just as hard are they are fighting against health care reform now. (Back in 1961, Ronald Reagan warned that if we passed Medicare we would "spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free.")
Speaking of the entrenched interests arrayed against him, FDR said: "Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me -- and I welcome their hatred." Obama, on the other hand, welcomes these entrenched interests into the Oval Office and invites them to amputate another limb off health care reform and dump it in the garbage on the way out.
Such is the desire for real reform that even the poorly explained -- and only fitfully supported by the White House -- public option (which, it's worth noting, is already a half-a-loaf compromise from a Medicare-for-all single-payer plan) still has 77 percent support among the public.
But Kent Conrad is telling us again and again that "there are not the votes" for a public option. And Marc Ambinder reported last week that "privately, White House aides have communicated to the House leadership that the onus on changing minds about the public plan is on Congress, not on the president."
That is not, to say the least, leadership.
The issue that is, for now, the defining moment of Obama's presidency is itself at a defining moment.
The president has, rightly -- finally -- started speaking of health reform as a "moral imperative." If he really believes that it is a moral imperative, then the time for dealing with those who oppose it needs to come to an end. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't march on Selma so Rosa Parks could sit two rows up from the back of the bus.
During the campaign, Obama frequently said that this wasn't about him, but about all of us. That's true, but we're now at a juncture where it actually is about him.
The president has the leadership skills to reclaim this debate and take it directly to the American people, sidestepping -- or running over, if need be -- those who have decided to stand in the way of real change.