Russ Feingold made a fairly dramatic claim in a statement yesterday — he said that the President was essentially responsible for the loss of the public option:
I’ve been fighting all year for a strong public option to compete with the insurance industry and bring health care spending down. I continued that fight during recent negotiations, and I refused to sign onto a deal to drop the public option from the Senate bill. Unfortunately, the lack of support from the administration made keeping the public option in the bill an uphill struggle. Removing the public option from the Senate bill is the wrong move, and eliminates $25 billion in savings. I will be urging members of the House and Senate who draft the final bill to make sure this essential provision is included.
Today on MSNBC, Howard Dean was asked if he agreed with Feingold’s statement that the Obama Administration bore responsibility for the public option’s removal. He was unequivocal. “Yes” was his one-word answer.
Nate Silver argues that there wasn’t much Obama could have done in this regard. He says that too many Senators opposed the public option for Obama to overcome. But he does agree with the overriding sentiment that progressives are making when they say this: Obama was unwilling to actually fight for any specific policies or put a marker down on any of them, outsourcing the legislating responsibility to Congress and failing to use his political capital for any particular provision. As a result, Obama spent his time arguing for amorphous “reform,” which sowed “confusion among our public,” as Jim Webb put it.
The fact that Joe Lieberman is out there today saying that the White House never pressed him about the public option (I should note that we have no idea whether or not that’s true, and Lieberman could just be trying to shift the blame) just adds to the frustration among liberals about the President’s governing style. Drew Westen (my former psychology professor, if I can add some personal biographical info) expertly describes this today in a long piece at the Huffington Post:
Somehow the president has managed to turn a base of new and progressive voters he himself energized like no one else could in 2008 into the likely stay-at-home voters of 2010, souring an entire generation of young people to the political process. It isn’t hard for them to see that the winners seem to be the same no matter who the voters select (Wall Street, big oil, big Pharma, the insurance industry). In fact, the president’s leadership style, combined with the Democratic Congress’s penchant for making its sausage in public and producing new and usually more tasteless recipes every day, has had a very high toll far from the left: smack in the center of the political spectrum.
What’s costing the president and courting danger for Democrats in 2010 isn’t a question of left or right, because the president has accomplished the remarkable feat of both demoralizing the base and completely turning off voters in the center. If this were an ideological issue, that would not be the case. He would be holding either the middle or the left, not losing both.
What’s costing the president are three things: a laissez faire style of leadership that appears weak and removed to everyday Americans, a failure to articulate and defend any coherent ideological position on virtually anything, and a widespread perception that he cares more about special interests like bank, credit card, oil and coal, and health and pharmaceutical companies than he does about the people they are shafting.
The problem is not that his record is being distorted. It’s that all three have more than a grain of truth. And I say this not as one of those pesky “leftists.” I say this as someone who has spent much of the last three years studying what moves voters in the middle, the Undecideds who will hear whichever side speaks to them with moral clarity.
These real political problems were magnified in the public option fight. Obama appears to have not cared about anything substantive on the reform other than acquiring it, and to do so he bought off stakeholders to keep them at bay. Let’s be honest that this has resulted in coming closer to achieving a health care bill than any President in history. But the remnants that compose the bill, and the associated political fallout, are a direct result of the leadership issues Westen identifies.
This style is already causing cracks among the progressive base and among members of the political class, as we see with Feingold and Dean. I don’t think it’s a sustainable strategy for the long term.