Has Obama killed his presidency?

By Chris McCarthy

On Sunday March 21 the U.S. House of Representatives voted 219 to 212 in favour of the controversial healthcare reform bill. President Obama signed the bill into law yesterday morning, using twenty pens in the process, one for each letter of his name.

In doing so, Obama and the Democratic Party succeeded where previous administrations failed, and enacted the first major healthcare reform since Medicare (health insurance for people over 65) was introduced in 1965.

But at what price? What are the consequences for the Obama administration and the Democratic Party after an acrimonious, unpleasant and protracted partisan debate?

It seems almost unfathomable that any, let alone so many, Americans would object so fiercely to the idea of providing statutory healthcare insurance for those 37million currently without it.

As counter-intuitive as it might seem, this hasn’t been a debate about extending healthcare to the uninsured. This has been the superficial front for a reigniting of the Big Government vs Small Government (or no government) issue that has been a stalwart feature of American democracy since Britain was defeated at the War of Independence in the late 18th Century.

Recognising this is important in helping to understand why the American public can get so passionately heated about legislation that will (supposedly at least, if not necessarily in practice) extend or increase government involvement in their lives.

In his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan tapped into this anti-government sentiment when he said: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The Tea Party movement has been so successful in part because it has given voice to the many, briefly dormant as the Obama juggernaut swept America, who subscribe to this philosophy.

With a full legislative agenda still ahead of him, the American public’s historical aversion to government ‘interference’ threatens to derail any major plans that don’t carry bi-partisan support in the House or Senate. After the stimulus package was passed last year, and now healthcare, the American right (given greater voice and mobilised by characters such as Sarah Palin) feels affronted and at times, incandescent with rage.

Some Democrats are said to be nervous about the security of their seats at the mid-term elections later this year after President Obama pressed forcefully ahead with the implementation of healthcare reform despite over 50% of the American public consistently against it.

This is a real possibility for Obama and was surely a contributory factor in his decision to press ahead with reform rather than ‘take it back to the drawing board’ as many Republicans urged. Aware that his legislative agenda will be increasingly stalled and diluted post mid-terms, Obama is pushing ahead while he has the best opportunity.

The administration won’t be a lame duck if it loses control of either or both houses but it will require greater bi-partisan effort to achieve the major reform Obama promised. The Republican Party remains unwilling to provide such assistance and there is little reason to expect this to change in November when they will likely hold greater leverage.

Obama has used-up much of his goodwill on the Capital in passing this historic healthcare reform bill. The Senate will still have the opportunity to make amends and the Republicans have promised to raise legal proceedings against the constitutionality of the bill. But for many it is hard to present this episode as anything other a ‘defeat’ for the right, for those who fear government influence rather than welcome it.

Perhaps, for some, Obama’s handling of passing healthcare legislation has demonstrated his commitment to promises made on the campaign trail, his toughness and resilience. I suspect for most, however, that this has resolutely confirmed their suspicions of the dangers of an over-reaching government.

With America being a broadly conservative nation, I fear Obama is marching towards a one-term presidency and I wonder if he knows it too?

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