The Failure of Institutions

By , 26 December, 2009, 2 Comments

Another round of reader requests led to the following reflections on 44’s latest moves on two issues near and dear to me: health care and climate.

1. This health care bill is a travesty. It has no real mandate (here’s why), no sizable subsidies, and no powerful introduction of new competition to the market. All it does is add new requirements for insurers to end discriminatory practices—this is a good thing, but it will raise, not lower, prices, and thus fail to expand coverage. It’s not, in any sense, health care reform. It’s just an incremental change in our insurance system. I’d be able to swallow the larger failure, if the Administration were willing to admit that failure by simply calling this an insurance bill. That is what the Clintons did. After failing to get Hillarycare, they passed a smaller children’s care program, and never tried to brand that bill a systemic health care reform. Instead, they took the electoral punches that came from failure in 1994. The benefit of admitting the larger failure was to keep systemic health care reform on the table for the next Democratic President. By trying to brand this bill as major health care reform, the Administration risks closing the political door to the real thing later on. It will be a political victory for them, and maybe save the Dems in 2010, but it is a dishonest move, and a huge policy sacrifice in the long-term.
2. Copenhagen was a farce. Blame the Danish and the Chinese and Ban Ki-Moon to be sure, but also blame Obama. Firstly, it was a mistake to think that health care and cap-and-trade could pass Congress at the same time. Given the hard deadline of the Copenhagen conference, it would have been wiser to tackle climate first. The failure here seems to be attributable to Obama’s sense of his own world-historical importance. Somehow, despite contrary evidence, he seemed to think that world leaders would sign a binding agreement with him even if he didn’t yet have Congressional backing, and that Congress would then rubber-stamp any deal he had signed. Particularly upsetting is the first assumption—it reflects arrogance about US influence on international institutions and disrespect for the institutions themselves. Obama talks a lot about the value of reaching out internationally, but it seems to me he is referring to a universal humanism, to connections between peoples. It’s not clear that he sees intrinsic value in the bureaucratic processes of inter-governmental organizations like the UN, or that he realizes these organizations can only do good when everyone plays by the rules. The climate debacle is a great case study of what happens when institutions are weakened by those who want to sidestep them.

In both cases, it seems to me, this Administration is hampered by an inability to understand the way political institutions work or a desire to wave them away with the magic wand of Obama’s individual presence. As a longtime institutionalist, I can only say, I told you so.

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2 Responses {+}
  • Michael Morgenstern

    You said it. The most telling moment to me was, on December 22, within a half hour of each other, I received two emails:

    Moveon.org listed five key problems with the Senate bill, including no public option, unaffordability, and limits on abortion.

    Obama called it "the most significant health reform our nation has seen since the creation of Medicare" and left it at that.

    I like your example of Lyndon Johnson as someone who didn't politic on civil rights but truthfully sought what he desired. Obama seems to constantly subvert his own policies in the name of prudence, which is so far from what Obama the candidate claimed to want to do that it's not even funny.

  • Preppy McPrepperson

    Hmm, I guess one of the reasons I'm more mad than disappointed is because I think this is exactly what he promised. See, I think the "old politics" ie engaging with the reality of Washingtonian and global institutions can work if done LBJ style. Moreover, I think foreign policy should be conducted on the basis of dealings between states, not humanist appeals to the peoples of other countries. Thirdly, I have no problem with partisanship and no time for consensus: get the job done, piss some people off if you have to, don't break any laws, don't do anything that is pennywise, pound foolish and rebounds in the long term. Those are my political principles. Destiny, individualism, unity, change, hope, any of these abstract nouns just don't enter my thinking. Obama uses all those ideas, so I always, always thought it would be this way. I'm mad because he was smart enough to appoint advisors who don't use that language, and I can't understand why they are playing along.

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