- The president brushed off suggestions by some allies that the fight over his centerpiece domestic policy initiative has been tinged by racial attitudes. “What’s driving passions right now is health care has become a proxy for a broader set of issues about how much government should be involved in our economy,” he said on CBS. “I have no interest in increasing the size of government. I just want to make sure we’ve got a smart government.”
If Barack Obama is “post-partisan,” it’s not because his positions are middle-of-the-road or ideologically indistinct, nor because he is prone to compromise. It’s because he doesn’t want to use policy debates as proxies for a grand ideological struggle between statist liberalism and libertarian conservatism.
Paul Krugman recently wrote that Mr. Obama “needs to get over” his “visceral reluctance to engage in anything that resembles populist rhetoric.” Obama is often populist, but not in Krugman’s sense, which means strong support for government regulation. I don’t think Obama’s reluctance to go down that path is “visceral” at all (unlike Krugman’s yearning for the old time liberal religion). On the contrary, Obama knows that (a) most Americans are not very ideological, and (b) among Americans with ideological motivations, conservatives outnumber liberals. In the latest Gallup survey, “57% of Americans say the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to businesses and individuals,” and 38% think it should do more. Twenty-four percent would like to see more regulation of business and industry; 45% think there is too much already. Public opinion has moved sharply against regulation in the last year.
I think it’s foolish to try to turn this tide with presidential rhetoric or with policy devices like the public health insurance option, which is supposed to demonstrate the advantages of government management. Americans’ skepticism of government is built into our political DNA. Skepticism has risen with decades of poor performance by parts of the government; and the recent bailouts increased it further. We already have plenty of examples of good government programs, including Medicare and Social Security, that should suffice to demonstrate the advantages of federal leadership.
If a president avoids ideological proxy battles and tries to expand health coverage by using the most convenient and efficient tools possible, he can have most Americans behind him. If one of those tools really is a public health insurance option, I’m for it. But I think Obama knows much better than Krugman how to play the politics of this.