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Obama’s new role: Compromiser-in-Chief

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2009

NEWS ANALYSIS:

To move his agenda through Congress quickly, President Obama plans to embrace his campaign motto from last year — change — but not in the way he intended.

As a candidate, Mr. Obama promised to bring change to Washington. As president, he is learning he must accept alterations to his proposals in order to succeed — to become, in effect, compromiser-in-chief.

The process is already under way.

The climate change legislation that passed the House last month was a shadow of Mr. Obama's original formulation. Billions of dollars that he had intended to go to middle-class tax cuts went instead to utilities and farmers as part of a compromise that secured the votes of pro-business Democrats.

The health care debate has also been rife with give-and-take. Mr. Obama wants government to provide a public health insurance plan, but leading congressional proposals omit or downplay the option. The president would also prefer not to raise taxes to pay for health care reform, but senior lawmakers say he might have no choice and are floating tax hike plans for upper-income individuals and corporations.

Mr. Obama and his aides have made clear that they are open to almost any alternative as long as certain principles are respected. The president pushed for the House-passed climate bill despite its many differences with his own proposal. On health care, he has left most of the details to Capitol Hill.

"We haven't drawn a lot of bright lines," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said of the health care bill. "We're letting Congress work many of these issues through."

Such flexibility is not new from a White House. In fact, Mr. Obama would have brought major change to Washington if he insisted on keeping his proposals intact. Some of the most successful recent presidents, including Ronald Reagan, offered bold ideas initially and then accepted less in the end.

Mr. Reagan wanted deeper tax reductions than he ultimately got in the Tax Reform Act of 1986, but he managed to sign the historic income tax overhaul into law.

Some of the biggest presidential failures, by contrast, have come when chief executives insisted too stridently that their own plans needed to pass. A famous example was the death of President Clinton's health care plan two decades ago.

But presidents who are willing to alter their proposals significantly also risk losing the support of their electoral base. George H.W. Bush promised "no new taxes" during his 1988 campaign. Later, as president, he accepted a tax increase as part of a budget compromise and alienated enough of his core backers to lose re-election in 1992.

President Obama is facing a similar balancing act.

Democratic leaders had to wheel and deal to pass the climate bill in the House last month. But the compromises angered environmentalist groups that are among the Democrats' biggest backers. This week, the Natural Resources Defense Council broke with the congressional leaders and pressed the Senate to mandate that carbon dioxide emissions be cut by 20 percent by 2020, up from the 17 percent reduction target in the House-passed bill that they deemed too timid.

Health care reform presents an even larger challenge for the president.

Senior Democrats such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana are preparing health care reform bills that either avoid or water down the public insurance plan option as a way to attract the votes of moderates in the party. Liberal interest groups, angered by the maneuver, are airing commercials designed to pressure the president and Congress to keep the public option in the bill.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told the Wall Street Journal this week that he sees the path to passing health care reform as "negotiable" on the public option. Afterward, advocacy groups such as MoveOn.org and others attacked Mr. Emanuel for backing off and the president was compelled to take time from his current foreign trip to issue a statement reaffirming his support for a government program.

But he did so with what sounded like wiggle room. "One of the best ways to bring down costs, provide more choices, and assure quality is a public option that will force the insurance companies to compete and keep them honest," he said. "I look forward to a final product that achieves these very important goals."

Some in Mr. Obama's party defend his approach.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who is shepherding the health care bill through the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said the compromises being brokered do not threaten to "water down" Mr. Obama's agenda.

"I think we are in a strong position," he said. "The public is ahead of us on this."

The tussle will not be the last time a compromise will raise hackles. Longtime Washington observers agree that the president cannot afford to hang tough to his initial plans and hope ultimately to enact laws that he can call "reform."

To win, said R. Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "Obama will have to fight hard and be willing to compromise."

Christina Bellantoni and S.A. Miller contributed to this report.