There are three Democratic predecessors in whose footsteps Barack Obama could follow: Jimmy Carter, who was seen as a failure in both domestic and foreign policy; Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded at home but failed abroad; and Franklin Roosevelt, who achieved great things on both fronts. If Obama gets a reasonable health care reform bill through Congress, which I think is likely to happen, he gets to be at least Lyndon Johnson. Whether he moves beyond that point to something greater will depend on how he uses his legacy on the home front to deal with the foreign policy challenges he is facing.
The economist Albert O. Hirschman invented the concept of the “Hiding Hand” to capture the truth that human beings can never anticipate all the likely screw-ups and unintended consequences of their actions as they attempt to make things better. Unlike conservatives who use the unforeseeable future as an excuse for doing nothing, Hirschman believed the Hiding Hand was providential, since foreknowledge of how difficult things would be would prevent people from ever starting ambitious new projects in the first place.
Obama may well be subject to the Hiding Hand. He has clearly made a number of early miscalculations. He seems to have taken his victory in November 2008 as a mandate to push for a broad agenda of change, analogous to Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 election victory, which also brought solid Democratic majorities to both houses of Congress. The problem is that the country remains, as Karl Rove has suggested, center-right, and is far more polarized than in the 1930s. Centrists and independents voted for Obama in great numbers not because they approved an ambitious expansion of government power, but because they were disgusted with George W. Bush and the Republican Party. As Obama’s Administration proceeded to pass a large stimulus bill, bail out the auto industry, and make a huge push for health care reform to include both a personal mandate and a public insurance option, those centrists began deserting him in droves. The far Right, in the meantime, has worked itself into an hysterical fit over whether Obama isn’t in fact a Manchurian candidate who has somehow stolen their beloved country from them. Following on the huge financial crisis, it is reasonable to wonder whether the new President hasn’t bitten off much more than he can chew, and should have concentrated solely on getting America back to economic growth as the first order of business.
Yet against this backdrop, Obama went all-in for health care reform. This early emphasis has sucked all the oxygen out of Washington, leaving financial sector reform, cap-and-trade and energy, immigration, and foreign policy more generally all gasping for air. We’ve seen few innovative proposals to renovate the international system in the wake of the financial crisis; dithering on what to do about Afghanistan; and a nearly year-long delay in appointing a director for USAID. If you care about these issues, you’re going to be disappointed. And if Obama fails to get a meaningful health care reform bill through Congress by the spring of 2010, then he will face an early and probably fatal loss of momentum that will indeed make him look like Jimmy Carter. Thus the Hiding Hand: If Obama had foreseen all this, would he have gone down that road in the first place?
Perhaps not, and that would have been unfortunate. If Obama succeeds in getting a meaningful health care bill passed, he will have accomplished something huge. Beginning a reform of the health care system is intrinsically important, but also critical as a sign that the country’s political system is capable of actually dealing with some of the long-term problems it faces. America’s system of checks and balances has metastasized into an increasingly dysfunctional formula for putting off difficult problems, with the broken state of California representing one possible vision of where the country as a whole might end up in the future. Any health bill that emerges from Congress will not “fix” the health care system once and for all, perhaps not even treat the essence of what’s ailing it. But as Hirschman was fond of pointing out, that’s not how reform works in democratic societies. If Obama moves the country closer to something like universal coverage, he will create an important legacy and some political capital that will give him breathing room on other issues (and also on the same one down the road).
The problem, then, in all likelihood, is for Obama to avoid being Lyndon Johnson, whose achievements at home were overshadowed by failure in Vietnam. I am not particularly dismayed by the length of time it has taken Obama to come to a decision on how to move forward on Afghanistan. This is a very different situation from Iraq in 2007, where the success of an 18-month surge was underpinned by the willingness of significant local forces to switch sides borne of the Sunni Awakening. We have no similar potential ally in Afghanistan, and risk bearing much of the burden of fighting the Pashtuns on their home territory all by ourselves into the indefinite future. Since there are likely to be ways of dealing with the al-Qaeda threat other than occupying much of southern Afghanistan, it is worth taking our time to figure out what these are.
The other ticking bomb in foreign policy, Iran, will either defuse itself through internal change, or go off sometime next year. I’ve believed for some time that we don’t have many levers in influencing events there, whether through negotiations, sanctions, provoking regime change or military action. So the Obama legacy will rest largely on how it reacts to an evolving situation that is not fundamentally under American control.
The other big issue facing Obama is the American economy, which is simultaneously a domestic and foreign policy challenge. The early success of the Paulson-Geithner bank rescue has undercut the urgency for taking stronger measures to regulate the financial sector to prevent a repeat of the crisis. Simon Johnson has argued that we live in more of an oligarchy than we care to admit, with the banks pouring millions of dollars this year into lobbyists seeking to defeat more serious forms of regulation. As far as I can see, none of the reforms before Congress seriously deal with the too-big-to-fail problem that necessitated TARP and the huge taxpayer bailouts from last winter. Nor have there been ideas coming out of Washington for stronger coordination internationally. Recovery from the current recession is likely to take much longer and be slower than, say, recovery from the 1981–82 recession at the beginning of the Reagan Administration. So the fiscal resources available in the coming years for a very ambitious external policy are going to be more limited than in the Reagan years.
But first, Obama has to get his health reform through Congress…