The Boring, Relentless Advance Of Obama’s Agenda

If there has been one consistent feature of the Obama years, it has been the resilience of a ferocious opposition and its simultaneous, accumulating irrelevance. That can always change, of course. Another shellacking in the mid-terms and a bungled presidential race, and we could be looking at serious attempts at rollback. But so far, even as critics and opponents have thrown wrench after wrench into the administrative and legislative churn, some core changes look set to endure. The drawdown in “defense” has not produced the kind of popular revolt the neocons would prefer – and has support among key factions of the Republican party. A slightly higher tax hit for the rich was effectively endorsed in Dave Camp’s tax reform proposal. The massive increase of investment in solar and wind energy will not be soon undone – alongside the fracking revolution. And, as we’ve seen in Crimea and Syria, public appetite for a hegemonic, interventionist foreign policy is close to non-existent.

But obviously the core domestic achievement of the president – the expansion of healthcare to the working poor – is the main event. The repeal of it has been the prime cause for the GOP since 2010. They hope to win the mid-terms on it. And yet, as a new Bloomberg poll reveals, the actual key elements of the law garner widespread popular support:

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Even on the mandate, the verdict is pretty even.

Now it may be that a Republican alternative, which does its best to meet these same goals, could be fashioned. But if it is, and if it is somehow wrestled into law, aren’t the key reforms above still in place? And isn’t that a victory for Obama after all? Added to this is a majority emerging that wants to see the current law as the basis for further reforms:

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When 64 percent of Americans want to see the law fixed or left alone, you have the recipe for long-term resilience.

Has this dented in any way Republican fury at the law? Not so far as you can see from the messaging being unveiled for the midterms, where repealing the law is front and center in the campaign. Karl Rove may be prescient in noting that Obamacare may not be sufficient to win back the Senate – in part because it’s not as potent an electoral ploy as populist hostility to big banks. But his party doesn’t seem inclined to listen.

My own view is that this entire debate over the last few years reveals a core truth about our current politics. One party has taken a ruthlessly pragmatic approach to governing, while the other has taken a ruthlessly rhetorical approach to opposition.

It is as if the Republicans had decided that their opposition to the president would become a kind of performance art version of all their previous tricks. Obamacare is a function of a tyrant! The president is a mom-jeans-wearing weakling compared with Putin! He’s coming to take away your guns! He’s robbing white seniors to pay for poor blacks! And almost none of their critiques has carried the kind of decisive bite that could actually arrest Obama’s relentless chugging forward. In a war of attrition, one side is all histrionics, and the other all action. It reminds me a bit of the 2008 primary race. One side was crusading for the first woman president; the other was quietly counting delegates.

Some of this is inherent, of course, in one side being the government and the other the opposition. But the absence (until very recently) of any Republican legislative proposal that might attract serious, bipartisan support on the budget or climate change or immigration, and the absence in particular (until very recently) of even a modestly practical and palatable alternative to Obamacare reveals the core disparity. 50 votes to repeal Obamacare is not smart politics; it’s entertainment. One side is theater – and often rather compelling theater, if you like your news blonde, buxom and propagandized. The other side is boring, relentless implementation. At any one time, you can be forgiven for thinking that the theatrics have worked. The botched roll-out of, to take an obvious example, created a spectacular weapon for the GOP to hurl back at the president. But since then, in undemonstrative fashion, the Obama peeps have rather impressively fixed the site’s problems and signed up millions more to the program. As the numbers tick up, the forces of inertia – always paramount in healthcare reform – will kick in in defense of Obamacare, and not against it. Again, the pattern is great Republican political theater, followed by steady and relentless Democratic advance.

Until the theater really does create a new majority around Republican policies and a Republican candidate, Obama has the edge. Which is to say: he has had that edge now for nearly six years. Even if he loses the entire Congress this fall, he has a veto. And then, all he has to do is find a successor able to entrench his legacy and the final meep-meep is upon us. And that, perhaps, is how best to see Clinton. She may not have the stomach for eight years in the White House, and the barrage of bullshit she will have to endure. But if you see her as being to Barack Obama what George H.W. Bush was to Reagan, four years could easily be enough. At which point, the GOP may finally have to abandon theater for government, and performance art for coalition-building.