Healthcare, the Olympics, and the Obama Legacy

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I’ve been reading Richard Pious’ Why Presidents Fail. What’s caught my eye is his discussion of the Clinton Healthcare reforms; or rather, why they never materialised. His argument is complex and detailed but the rub is something like this: the effort failed for two reasons. First, they tried to do too much too soon. Second, and most significantly, the process was all wrong. Hillary Clinton was put in charge of a task force of some five-hundred individuals split into roughly a dozen working groups. The task force was, in some respects, quite independent from the administration. It was comprised of a number of different stakeholders, but omitting a few crucial groups. Doctors’ groups, for example, were not fully consulted. And fatally, Congressional staffers weren’t included in the discussions until the last moment, and even then, no Republicans were involved. Deliberations were conducted entirely in private, with the public kept in the dark until too late on. The proposal did not even reach the floor of either house of Congress for debate.

Obama’s team shows signs of having benefited from the knowledge of the Clinton experience, and for that reason I think we have right to be more optimistic about this latest effort. Some of the top Obama aides (Emanuel in particular) were heavily involved in the earlier attempt. You see that reflected in their strategy. Since Monday, the White House has taken agressive control of the news agenda, in an effort to sell their healthcare proposal. They’re also careful to stress not just the benefits of their program but the bipartisanship of their process. The strategy is the same as for the stimulus and the budget – have the President persuade the public directly, and get Congress onside by showing a willingness to work with, not against, the opposition.

That this simple strategy is a good one is why I think this attempt stands a far better chance of success than Clinton’s. It’s important, of course, that healthcare costs are so much higher now than in 1993, and that big business, like never before, feels burdened by the high premiums they pay on their employees’ health plans – both these things lend support to Obama’s policy. But this administration remembers keenly the importance of the hard sell to both the public and to Congress. The way they’re conducting policy-making is streets ahead of the effort of fifteen years ago.

Nate Silver had an excellent piece yesterday on the 2016 Olympics. Obama is taking unprecedented steps to support the Chicago bid, recording two specific addresses on the topic, and dispatching top aide and noted fixer Valerie Jarrett to provide hands-on-support. Many have been quick to dismiss the administration’s keenness to back the Chicago bid as a product of the Obamas’ strong association with the city. Silver thinks it’s more than that, and he tries to bring the analytics in support of the idea that US hosting of the olympics helps the incumbent party in the following election.

The argument is clearer, I think, without the polling data. If Obama managed to bring the olympics to Chicago, the public would take to it. In Britain, the gripes are about cost. In the US, sport is not government funded to the same degree it is here; the thought is that, like the Atlanta games, all funds for Chicago 2016 would be found privately. So the most obvious possible objection to the hosting of the games doesn’t apply here. As such, he’d likely get a boost when the award of the games to Chicago was announced. More importantly, a summer games in 2016-which, if Obama wins reelection as we’d expect right now, would be his final full year in office-would contribute to a positive national mood, to the feeling that the Obama presidency had brought great things to the nation. And by the time of the games, the Democratic candidate for President (the smart money still says that person will be Hillary Clinton) would be known. Obama could, in this scenario, use the games as the perfect opportunity to pass the presidential mantle on to his preferred successor.

There are only a few big headline moments in US election campaigns, so far as most of the public is concerned: the nomination, the convention, the debates, the vote. Adding a big, free media circus centred around the President (and by extension, his party) right in the middle of that equation would, the thought goes, greatly enhance both Obama’s reputation and the chances of a democrat being elected as his successor.

And that’s something Presidents want – someone of their own stripe to succeed them. Part of the reason is that it seems like a final seal of approval on your time in office. More than that, it means that the change you brought is less likely to be dissolved, or reversed, or denounced. It’s all about legacy.

It seems early to be using the ‘L’ word. But Presidents shape their legacies from day one. Obama knows, I think, that passing healthcare and bringing the Olympics to Chicago are important precisely because they are positive things he could be remembered by.

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