President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, likes to say that the only thing that is not negotiable is success. The last 48 hours offered a case study in how the president applies that maxim to governing.
After weeks of frustrating delays and falling poll numbers, Mr. Obama decided to take what he could get, declare victory and claim momentum on some of the administration’s biggest priorities, even if the details did not always match the lofty vision that underlined them.
From Copenhagen to Capitol Hill, the president determined the outer limits of what he could accomplish on climate change and health care and decided that was enough, at least for now. He brokered a nonbinding agreement with other world powers to fight global warming, averting the collapse of an international summit meeting. And he blessed a compromise on health care to guarantee the votes needed to pass the Senate.
Neither deal represented a final victory, and in fact some on the left in his own party argued that both of them amounted to sellouts on principle in favor of expediency. But both agreements served the purpose of keeping the process moving forward, inching ever closer toward Mr. Obama’s goals and providing a jolt of adrenaline for a White House eager to validate its first year in office.
Mr. Obama seemed encouraged by the progress. He had just left Denmark on Air Force One with the climate change agreement in hand when he reached Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, and heard of the health care deal. “He was, fair to say, pretty happy,” Mr. Reid later told reporters.
After landing in a Washington-area snowstorm and retiring for a few hours of rest, Mr. Obama appeared in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on a snowy Saturday. He called the health care deal “a major step forward” and the climate change agreement an “important breakthrough.”
'A long way to go'
Still, he acknowledged that neither was exactly what he had set out to achieve. On climate change, he said that the Copenhagen pact “is not enough” and that “we have a long way to go.” On health care, he noted that “as with any legislation, compromise is part of the process.”
In an interview, Mr. Emanuel said the developments showed that Mr. Obama “sets out the North Stars for us” in terms of broad and ambitious goals, but is willing to let his staff and allies haggle over the specifics. “He doesn’t negotiate the ends,” Mr. Emanuel said. “He’s very open to discussing alternative routes.”
Critics cautioned against making too much of the agreements. “They are pyrrhic victories,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former Capitol Hill aide. “Neither deal will necessarily improve his poll ratings with swing voters, nor will they energize his base. And neither take the necessary steps to put the American economy back on track, which should be the only thing he is thinking about right now.”
The climate deal in particular may seem more than it is. With the Copenhagen conference unable to agree on binding limits on greenhouse gases linked to climate change, Mr. Obama settled for a three-page agreement with no short or midterm goals but a long-term commitment to prevent world temperatures from rising by more than two degrees by midcentury.
The health care legislation is much further along, and while it compromised on abortion and abandoned a government-run health plan, it still includes many changes long favored by Democrats. If it passes the Senate this week as now appears probable, it stands a much better chance of actually becoming law, culminating decades of largely failed efforts to revamp the nation’s health care system.
Mr. Obama has put a high value on process and keeping things moving, recognizing that history generally does not remember the to and fro, only the big sweep of presidential accomplishments. He may not get the health care plan he envisioned but, if the legislation passes, he will insure 30 million more people, stop insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and at least try to rein in costs. He will not end climate change in his presidency, and may not get the market-based emission caps he wants, but he may move the country, and the world, toward meaningful action.
Of course, to many on both sides of the aisle, there is a less sympathetic narrative. To the left, Mr. Obama seems increasingly to lack the fire to fight on matters of principle. To the right, he appears to be overreaching, saddling the country with debt and the weight of a bloated and overly intrusive government.
Yet whatever their merits, coming at the end of a tough first year, the developments of the past couple of days were something of a balm for the Obama White House. Little this year has come as easily as Mr. Obama and his team once imagined, but as they sort through the balance sheet, they argue that the mediocre poll ratings do not reflect the record.
Mr. Emanuel noted that a year ago, the economy was on the brink of a depression and the financial and auto industries were near collapse. Today, the economy is growing again, and banks and one of the large car companies are repaying government bailouts, although unemployment remains perilously high and the national debt is soaring.
He also ticked off a series of legislative measures that passed with little notice — an expansion of health care for lower-income children, new regulations on the tobacco and credit card industries and an overhaul of military acquisition. With health care now looking closer to passage, Mr. Emanuel called it the “most significant legislative first year of a first-term president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
Even so, White House officials are frustrated at the difficulties they have had. As they talk about their agenda for 2010, some Democrats have suggested looking for a few easy, popular initiatives as sort of a breather between the big-ticket, often polarizing proposals that dominated 2009.
The problem, as they noted, is that they had expected some of this year’s proposals to be more popular, only to discover otherwise in a treacherous political climate.
This story, "Obama, Denied Full Victory on 2 Issues, Takes Validation," originally appeared in The New York Times.