WASHINGTON — President Obama favors the long game over the 24/7 chatter-culture that so often dominates the politics of Washington. But as he marks a crucial deadline for his Affordable Care Act, he must be sobered by the time that has passed since he won reelection and the time left in his presidency.
By almost any measure, this has been a lost year for the president on the domestic front. The flawed rollout of the health-care law, the most important initiative of his tenure, has been a huge setback. His main legislative initiatives have either disappeared or are stalled. The economy continues to improve, but the fruits have been unevenly distributed. The government shutdown damaged the opposition, but the president’s own ratings are also at record lows.
This is hardly what Obama could have envisioned as he looked toward his second term in the weeks after his reelection. He took his 51 percent popular vote and 335 electoral votes as a mandate to press forward with a progressive agenda (although some around him warned not to over-interpret the voters’ message). With much to accomplish, he sounded a note of impatience in his inaugural address as he sketched out his ambitions.
There are many reasons why such a paltry record of success followed. The president would cite Republican obstructionism as the principal cause. Certainly that is a significant factor in all his legislative dealings, both in this past year and during his first term.
Obama’s outspoken critiques of the GOP, which he expressed again during last week’s West Coast fundraising trip, are a measure of the frustrations of a president who has found no way around this barrier. There is a limit, as he pointed out, to what he can do through executive orders or administration rulings, although he is looking to those avenues where he can.
But Republicans are only part of the reason the president is where he is at this point. The problems with his health-care law are self-inflicted, and the damage now transcends questions about the law itself. It has infected his presidency more broadly.
He is in too much trouble right now to stand back and try to fully grasp what caused this law — this grand vision — to be introduced with so many problems that even his most loyal supporters are clearly dismayed. What could he have done to prevent them? Did he, as his conservative critics contend, put too much faith in ambitious designs and government’s ability to carry them out?
When they finally appear, the reports on how the administration used the three years since the law’s passage will probably be damning on multiple levels. Complex law commingled with the bureaucratic politics of government regulation and the pure politics of trying to mollify many interest groups.
The result was the current mess and fresh doubts about the law’s ultimate effects. Obama expressed some surprise at how complicated it all is. No, it’s not quite like buying tickets on Expedia.com.
This weekend marks the moment when Obama and his advisers have promised that the Web site, HealthCare.gov, will function smoothly, although already there are enough caveats to suggest that the initial pledge was overly ambitious given the scope of the problems. The repair work will have to continue.
Meanwhile, the administration has announced another postponement in the planned rollout – a year-long delay for small businesses to shop for insurance online.
It is one more step that undermines confidence in the administration’s ability to implement the law as planned and emboldens critics who say it is being selectively enforced.
There are signs of improvement on the Web site, just as there are anecdotal stories of people getting health insurance after going without it for years – one of the principal goals of the law, along with lowering the rate of increase in health-care costs. Whether all this is enough to instill confidence that Obamacare has been a success won’t be known for some time. Democrats in difficult races next year hope that a positive judgment will come before November 2014.
The president now owns this problem. The question is whether he will find a way to own the renovation, the improvements and, if the law does finally work as its advocates claim it will, the success. That could be critical to the bigger task of restoring his political health as he fights other battles in the coming months.
Leon Panetta, who has held enough high-level jobs in the executive and legislative branches to understand what constitutes leadership, made a telling comment after the partial shutdown of the government. At some point, he said, it’s essential that a president get his hands dirty if he hopes to prod others to find a way to solve the country’s fiscal problems.
That could be a more general critique of Obama’s leadership style. Aides argue that the president is an effective executive who masters policy details and asks tough questions of his advisers. He is said to be a president who likes debate and disagreement, enjoys the subtleties and nuances of public policy and doesn’t shrink from hard choices.
That is the president aides say they see every day. The public, however, rarely sees this president, nor do many members of Congress. Obama disdains the showier aspects of modern politics. That was a reason he struggled in his first debate against Mitt Romney in October 2012. He finds performance for performance’s sake distasteful.
All that is understandable, given the ubiquitous posturing that goes on in political life. But the politics of patience has its limits, too – and Obama must be nearing them. History suggests that presidents whose approval ratings fall as much as his have this year struggle to recover.
Beyond health care, the president has run into a roadblock on immigration reform. New fiscal deadlines approach over the next two months. His stated goal of boosting the middle class lacks measurable success. Having achieved a short-term agreement with Iran designed to halt its efforts to build a bomb, he must persuade skeptics in Congress, along with the Israelis, that the Iranians will live up to the terms. That’s a sizable to-do list, given the lack of progress in the past year.
Maybe natural forces will turn things back in his direction, but that’s not a good bet, especially for a president who spent a session with historians talking about how to create a legacy. Can he take steps to force a turnaround and produce the results he imagined a year ago? That’s the issue for Obama now.