During the campaign there was a debate about who Barack Obama really was: a person of moderate instincts who, in order to rise up the political ladder, cast many liberal votes in his short career; or a person of deeply liberal beliefs who, during the 2008 presidential campaign, presented himself as non-ideological, pragmatic, and in some respects conservative.
On Wednesday the question was answered.
In doubling down on his effort to nationalize American health care, Obama has showed himself to be — depending on your politics — either a “conviction politician” who is daring and bold or an ideologue who is stubborn and foolish. For despite the unpopularity of ObamaCare and the costs it has (and will) inflict on the Democratic Party, Obama is forging ahead. “I believe the United States Congress owes the American people a final vote on health care reform,” he said. This amounts to the commander-in-chief approving a political suicide mission for many Democratic lawmakers.
Why do it? Because Obama has decided that this is his best opportunity to leave a lasting liberal imprint on American society. He correctly understands that if he succeeds in overhauling health care, it will have huge ramifications, not only on health care itself but on the nature of the relationship between citizens of this country and its government.
In what turns out to have been one of the most revelatory and foreshadowing comments of the campaign, Obama, during an interview with the Reno-Gazette Journal in January 2008, said “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America” in a way that Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton did not. “He put us on a fundamentally different path,” Obama said.
Obama clearly sees himself in the Reagan tradition. The difference, of course, is that they advocated antithetical political philosophies and policies. Reagan wanted to limit the size of government and liberate people from dependency on it; Obama wants to massively expand the size of government and create more dependency on it. (George Will makes the case for the latter here.)
Reagan's tenure was a great success; Obama's remains a work in progress. What will determine where Obama eventually ranks is the wisdom of his choices; results, not process, usually determine such things.
But with Obama there is an important qualifier. The core of his campaign was Obama presenting himself as a fresh new face, the candidate of “hope and change,” a person who would embody a new kind of politics: transparent, bi-partisan, trans-ideological. “I will listen to you, especially when we disagree,” Obama declared the night of his election.
During the Age of Obama comity would replace acrimony, common purpose would push aside deep divisions. This was not peripheral to his campaign; it was central. The key to Obama's success was not his record, which was exceedingly thin for a presidential candidate, but presenting him as the antidote to cynicism, a man uncorrupted and unco-opted by “evil Washington.”
All of these hopes have been shattered — collateral damage caused by the president's determination to jam through ObamaCare. Obama's style of governing has caused more bitterness, more polarization, and deeper divisions. The lack of bipartisanship over the course of his first year has been stunning. And the countless distortions he has employed in the health care debate have been disheartening.
Will any of this matter? I think so, in part because Obama, more than any figure in our lifetime, made the aesthetics of politics — the process, the tone, the mood — the hallmark of his campaign. When you combine the substance of his agenda with his governing approach, it will, in my judgment, prove to be enormously damaging to Obama's presidency, his party, and the modern liberal project. But as the president said at the conclusion of the health care summit last week, that is what elections are for.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.