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What Did the Health Reform Effort Tell Us About Obama?

Excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews for this report.

Jonathan Cohn

Jonathan Cohn

Ceci Connolly

Ceci Connolly

Sheryl Gay Stolberg

Sheryl Gay Stolberg

Dan Balz

Dan Balz

Peter Baker

Peter Baker

Ryan Lizza

Ryan Lizza

Jonathan Cohn Senior editor, The New Republic

Jonathan Cohn

When he met with the Democrats in the House on the day of the vote, he said to many of them, "This will be the vote that defines your careers." And one thing I have concluded about Obama is that he's the least mysterious president I can remember in my lifetime.

Every other president, you had to always think -- they would say one thing and you always had to figure out what's really going on in their head. I think he's actually quite transparent. You can figure out what he wants by listening to him. It's a remarkable thing. I'm not sure it always helps him. But he says what he thinks. ...

I think he believes this is a transformational event with a capital T. He wants to be a transformational president.

Ceci Connolly The Washington Post

Throughout the health care debate, we saw Obama the pragmatist very early on. He dropped his opposition to an individual mandate, a requirement that every American get health insurance. Throughout the year, he wavered and sent mixed signals on a public option. So from the very beginning we saw a certain level of pragmatism. On the other hand, he had some idealism when it came to "I want the whole big, comprehensive approach."

When it finally got into the last two months of this campaign, Obama became increasingly pragmatic and practical. Some would even suggest he became much more of a traditional, old-fashioned Washington politician, almost in the same sense of a Lyndon Johnson. When you think about those final two weeks where he worked over something like 64 different members of Congress, usually one on one, sometimes in small groups, and he tried every argument available, and it was about one thing and one thing only -- and it was getting the votes.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg The New York Times

Sheryl Gay Stolberg

I think Obama learned that if he just sticks with it and tries to look like he is reaching out -- they learned the value of perseverance. But I frankly don't think that that's something that they had to learn. Look at the campaign. They ran a really tough campaign where nobody thought they could win at the beginning.

But what he discovered is just how much harder it is to sustain that as president, that it's so much harder to govern than it is to campaign. And what we've seen is a man who's learning how to govern. He already knew how to campaign.

I don't think he has changed. I think he's just grown in the job. I don't think his core principles or the essence of who he is has changed. He's learned how to use who he is to greater effect.

Maybe Americans' opinion of who this guy is has changed?

For many Americans, Barack Obama was an empty vessel. He reflected back to them what they believed. We didn't really know very much about how he would be as president. And now we've seen a guy who's willing to throw aside bipartisanship if he has to, to get what he wants done. We've seen someone who sticks with it, who perseveres, who won't give up, who dreams big, but is willing to be pragmatic at the same time.

Dan Balz The Washington Post

Dan Balz

I think the final stage of the health care bill was the moment that President Obama took full ownership of a fight that he began, but which he stood slightly to the side of through many crucial moments during 2009.

It was a moment that he realized if he was going to get this done, it was going to have to be with him out front as the point man taking ownership, making it clear that this was what he wanted. He had to make that clear to the American people, and he had to make that clear to the Democrats in Congress that it was important to him. But, as he said, it was important to the country. That was the argument he made.

It was presidential leadership and being prepared to take a risk on the single biggest initiative of his presidency.

Peter Baker The New York Times

Peter Baker

What we've learned about President Obama, of course, is he's a president who came in with great ambition, with a lot of ideas about how he wanted to change American society and his view to fix American society, and to fix Washington. And I think that he is in the middle of the process of learning how it actually works.

The education of a president, any first-year president, is going to be [a] tumultuous affair, particularly at a moment when the economy is still in crisis, when there are two wars being waged overseas, when there's so much at stake. And this is a president who is learning the outer limits of his abilities. He's learning the capacity of Washington to take direction. He's learning the limits on people's appetites for change. And he's learning that change means different things to different people.

Ryan Lizza The New Yorker

Ryan Lizza

What does this whole story say now about him, about his presidency? What do you think is the important lesson to be learned?

I think two things. One is he's learned an old lesson that most presidents learn, and that is you got elected because of some identity that you sold the American people. And it's very dangerous when you lose that identity.

Obama's identity was he was a consensus builder; he was not of Washington; he was an outsider. And some of that was lost through the process of passing legislation because the legislation process is messy, because by your very nature as president of the United States who lives in the White House, you are an insider. And the specific strategy that he adopted to pass legislation was very much an inside game. So that's dangerous, and you have to, through communications, through traveling the country, you've got to maintain whatever that identity was that got you elected.

Number two, I think that he showed that it's sometimes a little dangerous to get elected more on fuzzy concepts like change, which everyone supported at the end of the Bush era, rather than very concrete, specific -- dare I say ideological -- ideas. The comparison is with Reagan. Reagan came in with a very forceful critique of the Democrats and Carter and why the country was going in the wrong direction. And Obama's campaign relied a little bit more on biography and a little bit more on a sort of fuzzier notion of change.

And when that change was translated into the specific campaign promises -- which were always there in the campaign; they just weren't necessarily the highlight -- that turned off some voters.

And the final lesson, I think, is that circumstances matter. A lot of what he wanted to do as a president was devised very early in the campaign. And by the end of the campaign, the world looked a whole lot different. There was an economic crisis, and by the time he sat down with his advisers to articulate an agenda for the first year, he was in the middle of that economic crisis. And instead of that crisis giving them pause and putting the domestic agenda on hold until they had repaired the economy, they decided that actually the crisis could be leveraged to help pass their agenda. It's still early. We don't know how this is all going to play out, but that may be looked at, in hindsight, as a historic mistake.

posted april 13, 2010

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