The Powerless President by David Atkins

The Powerless President
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

Since I started writing here, I have been subject to numerous complaints from various Obama Administration defenders that I have been too harsh on the President. That the President is doing absolutely everything possible for progressive causes, and that bloggers like me should be more supportive.

One such consistent detractor wrote a long screed filled with self-deceptive perambulation about why she is leaving the Left. The piece is a near perfect encapsulation of the self-regarding arguments of the Administration's core defenders. It is tempting to take the whole thing apart bit by bit, but this one bit in particular struck my eye as needing a response, since I've encountered this argument countless times from various sources:

Not one single member of the left has proposed exactly how the hacks and poltroons named Baucus, Landrieu, Lieberman, Lincoln, and Nelson could have been persuaded or forced to support a public option.

This is another restatement of the "Powerless President" meme from many Adminsitration defenders. It is used not just in relation to healthcare, but every other major legislative debate as well. There is some truth to it, in that even a truly progressive President would find it almost impossible to move a corrupted Congress on most issues. But when it comes to the ACA and public option in particular, the argument is utterly laughable.

For starters, here are just a few of the things President Obama could have done:

1. Pressure Harry Reid to threaten Joe Lieberman's committee chair position.

2. Pressure Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to threaten to zero out any and all pork for the state of Connecticut. Let it be known through Capitol Hill rumor that that was happening, and put the scare into other Senators as well.

3. Or, alternatively, don't help the likes of Joe Lieberman get elected in the first place.

4. Promise to campaign hard for Blanche Lincoln if she voted for the public option.

5. When she refused, tell her that she's toast anyway, and that her vote would earn her a plum appointment in the Administration.

6. If Lincoln still refused to vote for the public option, commit to campaigning vigorously on Bill Halter's behalf in the primary.

7. Don't offer Ben Nelson a Nebraska Compromise unless he voted for ACA with a public option. All or nothing. (And by the way, offering that sort of direct bribe proves that Presidential arm-twisting of Congress really is possible if you want it badly enough.) Or if you're going to offer that deal, at least sweeten the pot in exchange for a public option vote. Don't get tarred buying a vote for a bill that doesn't even do what it needs to do; if you're going to buy a vote, buy a real vote and make it worth it.

8. Don't empower Max Baucus to be a kingmaker through useless months of compromise-wrangling with a GOP acting in bad faith. Maybe Baucus would have been a problem anyway, but there was no reason to give him such an important role during the crucial early phase of ACA deliberations. Keeping Baucus on a par with every other Senator would have reduced his sense of self-importance, and possibly led to a pro-public-option vote.

The list goes on and on here. LBJ and FDR were legendary for their arm-twisting tactics when it came to recalcitrant Congresses, and they are Democratic legends in Presidential history. The actions listed above are just an obvious basic beginning when it comes to such maneuvers.

But not one of them was even tried, to say nothing of more creative tactics.

Which leads to only one of two conclusions: either the President didn't want a public option at all as many progressives convincingly argue based on a wide array of evidence, or the President valued Senate comity and gentlemanly process over the implementation of good policy.

It would be hard to know which option is worse. Either way, the President was anything but powerless.