In many ways, his entire term as president has been leading up to this winter and spring. This will be when his core advancements in domestic and foreign policy will be tested as never before. This will be when we see whether the Affordable Care Act can gain traction and legitimacy as a reform that is far better than the chaos and inefficiency of the past; and when we see if the West can bring the great nation of Iran back into the fold of the world economy, with clear restrictions on its nuclear program.
The ACA has gotten off to a really rocky start, with the debacle of the website and the chorus of complaints from those whose health insurance plans will experience disruption. But it’s worth recalling that this law has always had a rocky history. It nearly got swallowed up by the urgent need to wrest the country out of a potential Second Great Depression; it wallowed in Senate inertia for months, as Max Baucus hemmed and hawed; it was pummeled by the summer of Tea Party rage; it nearly came undone when Ted Kennedy’s seat was lost to a Republican; it caused a huge loss in the 2010 Congressional elections, which in turn, helped the GOP gerrymander the House even more to their advantage, and block much of the president’s agenda since. It was the casus belli of the government shutdown and the debt ceiling crisis of this fall. When you look back, you realize why every previous president who tried to get this done failed – from Nixon to Clinton.
And yet it’s still alive, even as it’s enduring severe labor pains as it makes its way into the world. As I noted yesterday, support for it has actually risen recently; and, because of the website’s malfunction, the winners are much less vocal now than the losers. But if the process grinds on, that balance may change. The president should not be let off the hook for his previous overly-broad promises or for the clusterfuck of the site. He may need to adjust again a little. But the odds of the core of this law surviving – particularly the principle of universal coverage and the end of denials of insurance for pre-existing conditions – are solid. It may well need further reform, but it has created a framework for both Republican reform (if they can get out of their ideological mania) and even, perhaps, a single-payer system, if the Democrats want to move left. It’s messy, its future could go in several directions, but it’s now entrenched. The president can take the hit for the problems in the next three years, and he should. Because he’s not up for re-election and can veto any attempts to destroy it.
But in some ways, the outreach to Iran is just as important and critical. Again, the policy arc has been long and brutal. We witnessed – and this blog will never forget – the Green Revolution that emerged only months after Obama’s first election, propelled by the same online, youthful hopes that brought this president to office. We then saw the hopes of Obama’s Cairo speech destroyed by the brutal repression of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. The sanctions that were then imposed were everything a neocon could ask for – except for the war or regime change they still want. Again, it took four more years for the Iranian elites to fully digest how damaging the sanctions were, but in the last elections, Rouhani emerged as a pragmatic interlocutor. During all this, Obama managed to create a truly durable and powerful international coalition for sanctions, and prevent the Israelis from doing the unthinkable and starting a religious war in the Middle East that could have metastasized into a global terror wave, with all the collateral damage in human life and civil liberties that would have entailed.
Much could still go wrong. But there’s no doubt in my mind that both Rouhani and Obama want a deal.
Both have to keep their war factions – the AIPAC-dominated Congress and the Revolutionary Guards respectively – in check, while also using the threat of war or more sanctions from these groups to make the case for a deal in the center. For months now, the Iranian government and the Obama administration have been talking, slowly building trust, with Obama not removing but slightly loosening some of the financial restrictions on the country:
In the six weeks prior to the Iranian elections in June, the Treasury Department issued seven notices of designations of sanctions violators that included more than 100 new people, companies, aircraft, and sea vessels. Since June 14, however, when Rouhani was elected, the Treasury Department has only issued two designation notices that have identified six people and four companies as violating the Iran sanctions.
A six month freeze of nuclear activity would give the talks more time to succeed, without bringing the Iranians closer to the ability to make an actual bomb. It’s not done yet, but it looks close. If the result is a new detente or even a thaw in relations between the West and Iran, it would transform global politics in a way not seen since the end of the Cold War. Because this is the other Cold War that has been going on since 1979. Such a breakthrough would help us ease away from our dependence on the Saudis for oil (along with fracking and discoveries like the massive Australian shale field), and would also give us far more leverage over Israel in the pursuit of a two-state solution.
All this may come crashing down, which is why the next six months will indeed be the critical ones. But let us be clear what the stakes would be for the Obama presidency. It would mean that this president ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, devastated al Qaeda in the region 9/11 came from, killed bin Laden, and ended torture. At home, his legacy would be an avoidance of a second Great Depression, the revival of the US auto industry, a drastic reduction in the deficit, tough executive branch decisions to rein in carbon emissions, a civil rights revolution for gay people and universal healthcare. And as the establishment of the GOP slowly moves against the radicals and extremists that have run its brand into the ground, Obama will have done something else as well. By refusing to blink in the debt ceiling crisis, he may well have done what all truly transformative political leaders do: reform his opposition by making it more responsible in opposition and more pragmatic in government.
I once spoke of him as a potential liberal Reagan. For all the nay-sayers out there, it’s still possible.
(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty.)