Whether or not you agree with the substance of President Obama's and congressional Democrats' health care reform and climate change packages, it's hard to deny their ambition or intentions. They are trying to address enormous, consequential and long-neglected problems that our country, sooner or later, must face.
The magnitude is, to borrow somewhat from one of Obama's books, "audacious," to say the least.
But no matter how sincere their intentions and bold their efforts, it is increasingly clear their grasp is exceeding their reach on these two issues. While the Obama White House has always said compromise would be necessary, the cold realities of the state of the economy, budgets and deficits, and, for members of Congress, re-election are going to force a significant scaling down of the health and climate proposals. They find themselves in a situation in which compromising a quarter or a third of their original packages is not nearly enough. Their choice is either half a loaf or no loaf at all.
Expectations among Democrats on the left were great. Now they have to find exit strategies that are not interpreted as failures.
Perhaps if the recession had not been so deep, or if they had inherited a smaller deficit, the budgetary and political climate would have been such that they could have held out for more ambitious versions of these two proposals.
But the reality is that Americans have been hit by sticker shock. They fear that mounting deficits will rob them and their children of a prosperous future. The fact that the economy fell harder than virtually any economist expected and is rebounding more sluggishly than anticipated has created doubts that have shaken confidence in this government.
While it may well have been unrealistic to expect the economic stimulus package to have worked miracles this soon, and Obama warned that the economy would not rebound overnight, public expectations of a rebound were too high and now their disappointment is great.
In an era of immediate gratification, when the public sees massive amounts of money being shoveled into the economy, they expect immediate results, whether it is realistic or not. CBO's finding of no savings in the emerging Senate Democratic health proposal was the nail in the coffin for those holding out for a full loaf there.
Most Americans still like Obama a great deal. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and Pew Research polls show high personal favorability ratings and his overall job approval ratings remain good as well, according to ABC News/Washington Post and Gallup tracking polls.
Americans want him to succeed, but the unrealistic sense among many that he is a cross between a miracle worker and a magician, capable of pulling off the impossible, has been shaken.
Making things perhaps the most difficult have been moderate members of Congress, particularly in the Senate, who have raised the most concerns about the climate bill's proposed cap-and-trade emissions program, and a proposal to create a public health insurance option in the health package.
The White House and congressional Democrats must find a way to climb back off the end of the limb. They need to scale back their health care and climate change ambitions, and find middle-ground proposals that will do some good. They must get the ball rolling in the right direction on both fronts with proposals that neither cost as much, nor raise the hackles of swing state members who simply can't go for anything like what is being contemplated today.
The failure to do that will result in the president and Congress coming up empty-handed on either or both, failing in their top two signature issues. One can almost see the buzzards circling if they decide not to do this. The risk is that the special aura that has surrounded Obama since his Iowa caucus win will be stripped away. The potential of his presidency will be stunted, and talk resurrected of another crippled president or failed presidency, just a few months into the new administration.
The White House and Democratic congressional leaders need to figure out how to actually deliver solid packages on health care and climate change that do some good, can get passed, and that the public will perceive as down payments in trying to address these twin gargantuan problems.
Fixing our health care system, reversing climate change and achieving some measure of energy self-sufficiency are long-term journeys, not immediately achievable destinations. Expectations among Democrats on the left were great. Now they have to find exit strategies that are not interpreted as failures. This is one of those situations when the perfect becomes the enemy of the good, and some friends of the president and Democratic leaders can become, in effect, their worst enemies. They can guarantee that a fall-back strategy will be interpreted as failure.