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Promises Broken

I’m basically in 100 percent agreement with Ezra Klein about the health care bill, but even I don’t find myself remotely convinced by the argument that people shouldn’t be upset because the bill “is very close to the health-care bill that Barack Obama promised.”

Or, rather, I’ll concede that the bill only has a few differences from what Obama promised on the campaign trail, but those differences just happen to alight on exactly the points people are upset about. Obama promised a public option, but he didn’t deliver and as Russ Feingold has been complaining he didn’t really fight hard for it. He said he favored pharmaceutical reimportation, then struck some kind of deal with the pharma lobby and appears to have actively campaigned for the defeat of the Dorgan amendment. And when running against Hillary Clinton he offered precisely the critique of the individual mandate that people who want it removed are now making:

Now my take is that Obama was wrong on the merits about the mandate, that cutting a deal with pharma is a small price to pay to win their support for health reform, and that going to bat for the public option wouldn’t have changed anything. But I think you can hardly blame people for feeling betrayed on these points.

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I think that most people vastly overrate the President’s ability to influence this kind of thing. But one reason that people overrate it is that presidential candidates encourage unrealistic expectations. Obama didn’t canvass the country saying “I will use my agenda-setting powers to encourage congress to take up comprehensive health reform and then meekly accept whatever the 60th-most-liberal senator is willing to agree to.” Primary candidates competed with one another to offer the most aggressively sound climate change plans instead of acknowledge that this was all wishful thinking and congress would constrain the limits of the possible. Obama in particular encouraged the idea that he could and would deploy his undeniable skills at set-piece speech delivery to cause legislative action. I don’t think we should reject a good bill in order to get revenge on a candidate for raising false expectations or breaking promises, but I think it’s easy to see why people are upset with Obama.