Don’t strain the system. Don’t add to the national stress level. Don’t pierce when you can envelop. Don’t show even understandable indignation when you can show legitimate regard. Realize that the ties that bind still bind but have grown dryer and more worn with time. They need to be strengthened, not strained.
Govern knowing we are a big, strong, mighty nation, a colossus that is, however, like all highly complex, highly wired organisms, fragile, even at places quite delicate. Don’t overburden or overexcite the system. America used to have fringes, one over here and the other over there. The fringes are growing. The fringes have their own networks. All sorts of forces exist to divide us. Try always to unite.
These are things one always wants people currently rising in government to know deep in their heads and hearts. They are the things the young, fierce staffers in any new White House, and the self-proclaimed ruthless pragmatists in this one, need to hear, be told or be reminded of.
* * *
The big, complicated, obscure, abstruse, unsettling and ultimately unhelpful health-care plans, proposals and ideas keep rolling out of Washington. Five bills, thousands of pages, “as it says on page 346, paragraph 3, subsection D.” No one knows what will be passed, what will make its way through House-Senate “conference.” They don’t even know what the president wants, what his true agenda is. He never seems to be leveling, only talking. Everything’s open to misdirection and exaggeration, and everything, people fear, will come down to some future bureaucrat’s interpretation of paragraph 3, subsection D, part 22.
What a disaster this health-care debate is. It strains, stresses and pierces, it unnecessarily agitates and is doomed to be the cause of further agitation. Who doubts the final bill will be something between a pig in a poke and three-card Monte?
Which is too bad, because our health care system actually needs to be made better.
* * *
There are smart and experienced people who say whatever the mess right now, the president will get a bill of some sort because he has the brute numeric majority. A rising number say no, this thing has roused such ire he won’t get much if anything. I don’t know, but this is true: If he wins it, will be a victory not worth having. It will have cost too much. It has lessened the thing an admired president must have from the people, and that is trust.
It is divisive save in one respect. The Obama White House has done the near impossible: It has united the Republican Party. Social conservatives, economic conservatives, libertarians—they’re all against the health-care schemes as presented so far. They’re shoulder-to-shoulder at the barricade again.
* * *
The president’s town hall meeting on Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H., was supposed to be an antidote to the fractious town halls with members of Congress the past weeks. But it was not peaceful, only somnolent. Actually it was a bit of a disaster. It looked utterly stacked, with softball after softball thrown by awed and supportive citizens. When George W. Bush did town halls like that—full of people who’d applaud if he said tomorrow we bring democracy to Saturn—it was considered a mark of manipulation and insecurity. And it was. So was Mr. Obama’s.
The first question was from a Democratic state representative from Dover named Peter Schmidt. He began, “One of the things you’ve been doing in your campaign to change the situation is you’ve been striving for bipartisanship.”
“Right,” the president purred. They were really holding his feet to the fire.
“My question is,” Mr. Schmidt continued, “if the Republicans actively refuse to participate in a reasonable way with reasonable proposals, isn’t it time to just say ,’We’re going to pass what the American people need and what they want without the Republicans’?”
Stop, Torquemada, stop!
The president said it would be nice to pass a bill in a “bipartisan fashion” but “the most important thing is getting it done for the American people.”
Then came a grade-school girl. “I saw a lot of signs outside saying mean things about reforming health care” she said. Here one expected a gentle and avuncular riff on the wonderful and vivid expressions of agreement and disagreement to be seen in a vibrant democracy. But no. The president made a small grimace. “I’ve seen some of those signs,” he said. There’s been a “rumor” the House voted for “death panels” that will “pull the plug on grandma,” but it’s all a lie.
I’m glad he’d like psychiatric care included in future coverage, because after that answer that child may need therapy.
* * *
The president seemed like a man long celebrated as being very good at politics—the swift rise, the astute reading of a varied electorate—who is finding out day by day that he isn’t actually all that good at it. In this sense he does seem reminiscent of Jimmy Carter, who was brilliant at becoming president but not being president. (Actually a lot of them are like that these days.)
Also, something odd. When Mr. Obama stays above the fray, above the nitty-gritty of specifics, when he confines his comments on health care to broad terms, he more and more seems . . . pretty slippery. In the town hall he seemed aware of this, and he tried to be very specific about the need for this aspect of a plan, and the history behind that proposal. And yet he seemed even more slippery. When he took refuge in the small pieces of his argument, he lost the major threads; when he addressed the major threads, he seemed almost to be conceding that the specifics don’t hold.
When you seem slippery both in the abstract and the particular, you are in trouble.
* * *
Looking back, a key domestic moment in this presidency occurred only eight days after his inauguration, when Mr. Obama won House passage of his stimulus bill. It was a bad bill—off point, porky and philosophically incoherent. He won 244-188, a rousing victory for a new president. But he won without a single Republican vote. That was the moment the new division took hold. The Democrats of the House pushed it through, and not one Republican, even those from swing districts, even those eager to work with the administration, could support it.
This, of course, was politics as usual. But in 2008 people voted against politics as usual.
It was a real lost opportunity. It marked the moment congressional Republicans felt free to be in full opposition. It gave congressional Democrats the impression that they were in full control, that no one could stop their train. And it was the moment the president, looking at the lay of the land, seemed to reveal he would not govern in a vaguely center-left way, as a unifying figure even if a beset one being beaten ‘round the head by the left, but in a left way, without the modifying “center.” Or at least as one who happily cedes to the left in Congress each day.
Things got all too vividly divided. It was a harbinger of the health care debate.
I always now think of a good president as sitting at the big desk and reaching out with his long arms and holding on to the left, and holding on to the right, and trying mightily to hold it together, letting neither spin out of control, holding on for dear life. I wish we were seeing that. I don’t think we are.