Playing the Long Game

On March 4, 2008, Hillary Clinton won surprise victories in primary elections in Texas and Ohio. At first, it seemed to be a momentous shift of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, making Barack Obama's victory seem not so inevitable after all, as some had believed it to be since he won the Iowa caucus two months before.

But it quickly became apparent that Clinton's popular-vote wins were almost meaningless. In the contests that took place that day, Obama had actually garnered more delegates than Clinton. His march to the nomination continued unabated. By executing a carefully planned strategy of delegate accumulation and worrying less about the campaign's daily ups and downs, Obama bested a more seasoned rival to become the Democratic candidate.

That ability -- to see the entire contour of a lengthy political battle -- may be the most important factor in Obama's success. It got him to the White House, and it enabled him to achieve the most meaningful piece of social legislation in generations.

Remember when August's town hall meetings on health-care reform changed everything? Remember when it all hinged on Max Baucus' "Gang of Six"? Remember when Olympia Snowe held the fate of reform in her hands? Remember when Scott Brown's election killed any chance the bill had? At the time, all these things seemed so important that nothing else mattered. But what really mattered was the willingness to look beyond them, to see each as one step in a long journey -- obstacles that could be maneuvered around if necessary. Looking back, none seem as significant as they did then. But it took a particular kind of calm to realize that at the time.

Multiple news reports have related that at that crucial moment after Brown won the election for the vacant Senate seat from Massachusetts, advocates of two paths competed for Obama's heart, all while congressional Democrats were in a full-on panic. The first group, represented most notably by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, counseled a regrouping -- breaking the health-care bill into smaller pieces that might be swallowed more easily. The second group, represented by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, wanted to charge ahead and proceed as if one special election hadn't changed anything. Perhaps this strategy would require a procedural adjustment in Congress, but not much more. Obama sided with Pelosi, and as it usually does, in hindsight the choice seems obvious. But it required courage, equanimity, and the ability to employ a long vision.

A long vision does more than illuminate the path to an electoral or legislative victory. It also enables one to plan for changes that can extend past a single presidency. In January of 2008, Obama articulated this idea with a compliment for the 40th president. "Ronald Reagan," Obama said, "changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it." Unsurprisingly, Bill and Hillary Clinton were not particularly pleased with this comment. But Obama was right -- Clinton tends to be thought of as a good but not great president, despite his considerable accomplishments. This is most true on the economy, where what happened during his term was extraordinary -- a remarkable 22 million jobs created, significant reductions in poverty, and a prosperity that even people at the lower end of the economic scale shared in, a welcome historical anomaly in recent decades.

Yet the economy goes up and down, and economic progress can be quickly undone. Clinton labored to turn deficits into surpluses -- and then George W. Bush brought back the deficit in short order. Like much of what Clinton accomplished, the creation of a surplus was more precarious than it seemed. In the economic mire of today, the heady days of the late 1990s seem but a bitter memory.

During those 2008 primaries, Obama debated with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards about whose "theory of change," as Prospect editor Mark Schmitt described it, was more likely to produce genuine progress. According to Clinton's formulation, some people think you demand change (that would be John Edwards), some people think you hope for it (Obama), and some people know you work for it (herself). The differences between their health-care plans were minor and technical; the question was not so much which proposal was better but who could get reform done. Nevertheless, though they all said it was vital, there wasn’t much talk about health-care reform’s potential to be politically transformative.

We'll never know whether Clinton or Edwards would have been able to pass health reform, but we certainly know that Obama did more than hope -- no one can say he didn't work for his health-care bill. He was also willing to alter it along the way -- acceding to experts who convinced him that without an individual mandate it could not succeed, advocating and then dropping the public option -- because he was taking the long view that victory meant putting the structure of reform in place.

The long road made many progressives worry that they couldn't tell where Obama's heart really was on health care. Did he truly support the public option as he said? If he was willing to bargain it away, what else would he compromise on? But the truth is that Obama has been remarkably consistent -- not on the details, which were always open to negotiation -- but on the idea that he could lean left or right for a moment along the way, so long as he kept moving forward.

Einstein famously said that politics is harder than physics. That's because there are so many different variables at play, and prior events aren't necessarily predictive of the future. Choose one strategic path over another, and you set in motion a hundred reactions from allies and opponents. Whatever else Obama accomplishes over his time in office, he will have put in place at least one major policy that will affect the country for decades. If all goes well, it will be refined and improved over that time. Barring an unlikely repeal, the health-care issue will take place on the field Obama sowed for many presidencies to come. When we debate health-care changes to the system 20 years from now, we’ll be debating changes to the system this president put in place. Because he was able to keep his eyes focused into the distance, Obama will have changed the trajectory of the country in a way most presidents never do.

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