Obama in retreat over health care, his legacy

David M. Shribman
David M. Shribman

The health care Web site is a bomb. Immigration reform is looking more and more like a bust. The allies are aggrieved about surveillance issues. Israel feels betrayed on Iran.

The first black president didn’t bother to go to Gettysburg, where the 150th anniversary of the most important 270-word speech ever given would have given him a respite, and maybe a reset.

What’s up with Barack Obama, 44th president of the United States?

Often a president at around this stage of his second term is beset with scandal, but that’s not the case with Mr. Obama. Even the Benghazi imbroglio may be fading after disclosures suggesting the case against the administration may be a lot less potent than was earlier believed. No one seems to be supping at the public trough, or having a headline-ringing affair.

Yet this administration seems to be drowning. And while the speech at Gettysburg that the President didn’t make may be a sin of omission — involving words he didn’t speak — the Obama presidency seems to be floundering in sins of commission involving its own flood of words.

The words, for example, that said Americans could keep the health-care plans they had. The words that asserted the President didn’t know his world-leader colleagues were bugged. The words that argued Israel had little to fear from negotiations with Iran.

But it’s not only the words. It’s the impression that Russia played peacemaker in the Middle East, a role we’re not accustomed to seeing. And the impression that France was the hard-liner in the conversations with Iran, unusual given the way the words “France” and “appeasement” are ordinarily employed in any sentence that also includes the words “crisis” and “negotiations.”

The country just completed a fortnight-long immersion in sadness and solemnity over the death of a president who adjusted the nation’s horizons, even as some of his critics thought he was — as Eleanor Roosevelt once put it, bitingly — more profile than courage. This is a critique that Mr. Obama might find particularly cutting.

John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama belong to different generations and have governed in vastly different times. But the lesson from President Kennedy is that he learned lessons.

Today, almost everyone acknowledges that the 35th president was breathtakingly unprepared for the White House. An ingenue in foreign policy, a captive of clichés in domestic policy, he stumbled at the Bay of Pigs (four words that almost always are followed by the fifth word, “fiasco”), was humbled at Vienna in his meeting with Nikita Khrushchev (“He savaged me,” Mr. Kennedy admitted, chillingly). Yet he recovered to avoid nuclear catastrophe the next year during the Cuban missile crisis — and perhaps to approach greatness in his last 100 days.

Maybe it started with three sentences delivered to journalist James Reston shortly after the meeting with the Soviet leader: “I’ve got two problems,” President Kennedy told the New York Times newsman. “First, to figure out why he did it, and in such a hostile way. And second, to figure out what we can do about it.”

Thurston Clarke’s The Last Hundred Days, published this year, carried this subtitle: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President. Historians will be debating a century from now whether Mr. Kennedy was a great president. But there is little question that in his last year he was a man transformed.

Mr. Kennedy came to grips with the moral imperatives of the Cold War, finally. He confronted the moral emptiness of mutual assured destruction in nuclear confrontations with the Soviet Union, finally. And in Berlin he used a remarkable speech to harness the enduring and alluring power of freedom, finally.

“[J]ust as ambition and realpolitik had characterized his congressional career and early White House years,” Mr. Clarke wrote, “morality and emotion tempered his ambitions during his last 100 days.”

Mr. Obama has conquered the morality part, though many Republicans believe his health-care overhaul is at base immoral, or at least a departure from the American free-marketplace heritage.

As for the emotion part, it’s Democrats who find him wanting. They wonder what happened to the brave words and the charged connection with Americans of all ages and races that marked his 2008 campaign, but have been elusive since his inauguration.

His battle to preserve his health-care initiative, which extended into the government shutdown of this autumn, is where he stuck his emotional sword in the ground. He knew that protecting Obamacare was in effect preserving the Obama legacy, and he was prepared to fight for it.

And then, fresh from his triumph in the shutdown showdown, everything collapsed. It became impossible to repress this question, or to answer it:

If the political figure who used the Internet with brilliant efficiency and to remarkable effect couldn’t produce a simple Web site to perform what the President said was a simple procedure, then how would Washington handle the more difficult task of insuring good care for the sick when lives were at stake?

Mr. Obama and his forces have been retreating into failure for nearly a month. One bad month does not a disastrous presidency make, but the challenge for Mr. Obama is to clear away the shadow of failure that seems stuck over his White House.

The goal for Mr. Obama is to be remembered in the same way as Mr. Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan, or Bill Clinton — presidents who overcame obstacles — and not to be classified with Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, who left Washington in disrepute and are waiting for historical revisionism that may never come.

That is the task for the remainder of Mr. Obama’s years in the White House.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com