Obama the pragmatist must prevail
By Clive Crook 2010-03-04

Barack Obama is a puzzle. He is a skilful politician – he would not be in the White House otherwise – yet he has managed to dismay not only independent voters but also the liberal base of his own party. One can see that he was likely to disappoint one group or the other, but not both. How could the man with the nous to stop Hillary Clinton ever have let this happen?

Last week’s healthcare summit crystallised the answer. As a politician, he has a split personality.

In his domestic-policy heart, Mr Obama leans left, just as Republican sceptics always said. By conviction, he is no moderate. At the same time, he is pragmatic, an incrementalist, not one to let the best be the enemy of the good. He relishes frank and friendly discussion.

The key to Mr Obama is that both these personalities are real. It is not a case of his being a progressive who posed as a moderate (as conservatives say), or a flaccid centrist who pretended to have transformational ambitions (as many progressives have come to believe). His ambitions are genuinely progressive; his temperament is genuinely open-minded. It is a rare and confusing combination, and it explains a great deal.

On healthcare, he has sought the most progressive possible reform. Starting from scratch, he would have favoured a single-payer system such as “medicare for all”. But that was politically impossible.

Starting from here, he preferred a big, bold reform that includes a public option – a government-run insurance scheme to compete with private offerings. As it turned out, that was also too much, not just for Republicans, but for moderate Democrats, too. Again, therefore, the president was willing to compromise.

When he delegated healthcare reform to Harry Reid in the Senate and to Nancy Pelosi in the House, he was putting people he agrees with in charge. So far as public opinion goes, this was a grave tactical error, because voters distrust Congress and wanted Mr Obama to supervise. But it was true to his ambitions. Liberal Democrats wanted what he wanted. On the other hand, Mr Obama never sided unequivocally with progressives as the debate dragged on. He never closed the door to compromise. This was true to his pragmatic temperament.

Sadly for the president, the left objects to his pragmatism more than it applauds his ambitions, and the centre and right object to his ambitions more than they welcome his pragmatism.

The healthcare summit was an object lesson. From the Democrats’ point of view, by the way, it was a failure. The White House hoped to expose the Republicans as a party devoid of ideas, boost Democratic morale, and unify Democrats around a feasible plan. As it turned out, the Republicans acquitted themselves well. They stuck to a simple and superficially appealing line: greatly expanded coverage is unaffordable at present; better to go step by step, enacting smaller measures that command wider support.

The Democrats failed to shoot this down. The session did little for their morale or unity. Unified, they could pass comprehensive reform even now, all by themselves. The House just needs to vote for the unrevised Senate bill. But the party is too divided. Doubts remain over whether the Democrats can muster even simple majorities for comprehensive reform, supposing they use parliamentary manoeuvres to evade the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster rule.

Meanwhile, the summit exposed Mr Obama’s split personality in compelling detail. He was an effective and engaging chairman. Under difficult circumstances, he supervised an excellent conversation. With every appearance of sincerity, he said he looked for common ground and pressed the Republicans for steps they might all take together. But the reform he wants – and must now decide whether to pursue – is still a big bang, which Republicans oppose on principle.

He was willing to listen to the Republicans; but on the main point of difference – the scope of reform – he was never going to be persuaded. The first brings accusations of timidity from the left; the second brings accusations of hypocrisy from the centre and right.

This split personality – leftist convictions combined with a consensus-seeking temperament – threatens to cripple the Obama presidency. What should have been clear all along is now impossible to ignore: the US is to the right of Mr Obama on domestic policy. For his own views to prevail, he would need to shift the political centre. If this were even possible, it would require a muscular style of leadership he appears, so far, to have no taste for.

If he chooses instead to be guided by the country’s existing centre of gravity, he must recognise that the progressive wing of the Democratic party is not his ally but his enemy. Not only will he have to compromise, which he has already done; he will also have to champion compromise. He could do that well, if he chose to. The temperament then fits. But he could not do it without subordinating his own views, advocating more centrist solutions, and breaking with the left.

It is a call he will be unwilling to make. For the time being, expect further vacillation. The best hope for the Obama presidency may be the drubbing for Democrats in November that looks increasingly likely. Just as for Bill Clinton in 1994, this would make the president’s mind up for him. With weakened allies in Congress, he would have to be a centrist president or an outright failure.

奥巴马为何失去民意?
作者:英国《金融时报》专栏作家 克莱夫•克鲁克 2010-03-04

巴拉克•奥巴马(Barack Obama)是个谜。他是个手腕高明的政界人士(否则进不了白宫),但他却弄得独立选民和自己所在党派的根基——自由派——都感到沮丧。人们可以设想他可能让一个阵营或另一个阵营失望,但不至于会让两个阵营都失望。此人既然具备击败希拉里•克林顿(Hillary Clinton)的机智,怎么会让这种情况发生呢?

在上周医保改革峰会上,答案终于浮出水面。作为一名政界人士,他具有双重人格。

在核心国内政策上,正如共和党内怀疑论者一直在说的,奥巴马是左倾的。在信念上,他不是温和派。与此同时,他务实,是个渐进主义者,明白不能让追求完美妨碍实际可能达到的成果。他喜欢坦率友好的讨论。

对奥巴马来说,关键在于这两种人格都是真实的。他既非假装温和派的改革主义者(保守派就这么认为),也非假装具有改革雄心的软弱无力的中间派(许多改革派人士开始这么想)。他真的具有改革雄心;他在性情上也确实具有开放心态。这是一种罕见而让人困惑的组合,它可以解释一大堆事情。

在医保问题上,他寻求实现最为进取的改革。他想从零开始,推行“全民医保”之类的单一支付方制度。但这在政治上是不可能实现的。

接着,他希望进行大刀阔斧的改革,包括一个公共选择,即由政府运营一个保险计划,与私人保险同台竞争。结果证明,这对共和党人和民主党温和派来说,也都太激进了。为此,奥巴马再次愿意妥协。

当他把医改任务托付给参议院的哈里•里德(Harry Reid)和众议院的南希•佩洛西(Nancy Pelosi)时,他是要让与他见解相同的人士来负责这件事。在公众舆论看来,这是一个严重的战术失误,因为选民不信任国会,希望奥巴马亲自督导此事。但这样的安排合乎他的雄心。民主党自由派与他志同道合。另一方面,在辩论相持不下时,奥巴马从未坚定地站在改革主义者的一边。他从不把妥协的门堵死。这合乎他的务实性格。

对奥巴马来说,不幸的是,左翼反对他的务实主义甚于赞同他的雄心,而中、右翼反对他的雄心甚于赞同他的务实主义。

医改峰会就如一堂实物教学课。顺便提一下,在民主党人看来,这次峰会是失败的。白宫希望,峰会能够暴露出共和党是个缺乏创意的党派,提升民主党士气,让民主党人团结起来,一致支持一个切实可行的计划。可事实证明,共和党人表现得相当漂亮。他们坚持简单、表面上很吸引人的立场:当前要大幅扩大医保覆盖范围从财力上来说是负担不起的;与其如此,不如循序渐进,实行较小的措施,这样的措施才能获得更广泛的支持。

民主党人未能驳倒这一点。峰会既未提升他们的士气,也没能让他们团结起来。如果团结一致,他们现在就可以通过全面改革方案,依靠他们自己的选票。众议院只需投票赞成未经修改的参议院议案。但民主党太过分裂。人们依然怀疑:就算民主党运用议会策略来规避参议院的60票阻碍议事规则,也未必能够争取到足够的简单多数票,让全面改革方案获得通过。

与此同时,奥巴马的双重人格在峰会上表露无遗。他是个高效、迷人的会议主席。在艰难的形势下,他主持了一场卓越的对话。他表现出十足的诚意,表示他谋求共同点,并敦促共和党提出大家可能共同采取的步骤。但是,他所想要的依然是“重大改革”,对此共和党原则上是反对的。奥巴马现在必须决定是否继续推进这样的改革。

他愿意聆听共和党人的意见;但在主要分歧之处(即改革范围),他从不打算改变立场。前者导致左翼人士指责他怯懦;后者导致中、右翼指责他虚伪。

他兼具左倾信念与谋求共识的性情,这种双重人格恐将削弱他在任期内的作为。早就应该十分明显的一点现在已不容忽视:在国内政策上,美国处在奥巴马的右边。他要推行个人观念,就必须移动政治重心。即使这有可能做到,他还需展现出强硬的领导风格,而他迄今似乎没有意愿这么做。

反之,如果他选择顺应国家当前的重心,他就必须认识到,民主党改革派不是盟友,而是敌人。他不但必须妥协(他已经这么做了),还必须倡导妥协。只要有心,他是能够做好这一点的。那么他身上的性情就统一了。但如果他不压抑自己的观点、提倡更具中间色彩的解决方案,并与左翼分道扬镳,就做不到这一点。

他不会愿意做出这样的抉择。目前人们可以预期看到更多的犹豫不决。假如民主党在11月选举中落败(这种可能性似乎越来越大),对奥巴马任期来说或许是最好的。正如比尔•克林顿(Bill Clinton)在1994年的遭遇一样,这将为总统做出决定。当他在国会的盟友遭到削弱时,他将不得不成为一个中间派总统,否则就将一败涂地。

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