The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act represents a big victory for President Obama and will generate plenty of discussion and debate on the merits of that legislation and of the court’s action. But this victory can’t rescue Obama from the fundamental politics of the issue—or his own approach to the presidency. Few presidents have sought to change the country’s direction with so much audacity mixed with so little understanding of what it takes to actually do so. The Affordable Care Act reflects this fundamental reality of the Obama presidency.
With his talk of audacity and his actual audacious decision-making in the early months of his presidency, Obama made clear his resolve to join the ranks of those presidential greats who transformed the country’s political landscape and set it upon a new course. But this cannot be done through mere force of will or by manipulating the levers of legislative procedure or by mustering the full force of partisan unity—all of which Obama did to enact his health legislation. That he succeeded in pushing through Congress such an overwhelmingly unpopular measure is testament to his political doggedness but also to his political nescience.
The greatest presidents didn’t seek to transform the balance of political sentiment in the country by enacting bold and direction-altering legislation. It was quite the opposite: they first transformed the balance of political sentiment in the country in order to enact their seminal legislation.
Consider Lyndon Johnson’s grand accomplishment in enacting civil-rights legislation in 1964. At the time, Democrats commanded 258 House seats and sixty-seven in the Senate. Johnson and his congressional allies (both Democrats and Republicans) managed to scramble the political fault lines in both houses in a way that ensured this nation-changing legislation could pass both chambers with substantial majorities among both Republicans and Democrats. Thus, he transformed the national consensus on race and ensured that his accomplishment would stick.
By contrast, Obama had sixty Senate Democrats (including two independents who caucused with Democrats) and 242 House Democrats, and yet he felt comfortable pushing through Congress legislation of the highest magnitude on an almost strictly partisan basis.
Ronald Reagan offers another instructive illustration. When he sought to transform the country’s fiscal policies in the maiden year of his presidency, he first mustered a preponderance of political sentiment in the country behind his bold new fiscal philosophy. It helped that his Republican Party had picked up twelve Senate seats in the 1980 election and thirty-three in the House. Still, the House remained in the hands of Democrats, whose leaders resolved to thwart Reagan’s fiscal initiatives at every turn.
But, with Reagan pulling in a vast body of support around the country, his initiatives proved irresistible for a significant number of Democrats. Fully twenty-nine bolted their party’s position on the House floor to support Reagan’s budget proposal, and forty-eight crossed over to support his controversial tax-cut plan.
In other words, Reagan first laid down the political groundwork and then leveraged it to pass his legislation. Obama never did that with the Affordable Care Act.
Reagan offers another important lesson for presidents with bold leadership ambitions, and it is a lesson seen in the work of every Leader of Destiny who has occupied the White House. This is the lesson that presidential greatness requires an expansion of the governing coalition—bringing to the presidential banner new voters who previously had not been part of the governing bloc.
For Reagan it was the "Reagan Democrats," working-class Americans disgruntled over the country’s direction under Democratic leadership. By pulling these people to his standard, Reagan altered the political balance of power in the country, and that fueled his political success over two terms.
Other notable presidents did the same thing.
Andrew Jackson cleverly perceived that the politics of the country were being transformed by developments in the burgeoning West, where more and more states were choosing presidential electors by popular vote and eliminating property requirements for voting. The result was the emergence of a mass electorate, which could be exploited precisely with his brand of conservative populism.
Lincoln was elected in 1860 with less than 40 percent of the vote, but he worked through his first term to build his party into the country’s premier agency of industrialization, which ensured its dominance through the remainder of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.
Franklin Roosevelt totally scrambled up the country’s political fault lines to his party’s benefit, creating a powerful new coalition of labor, African-Americans, urban dwellers, intellectuals and Jews. He also cut into Republican support among farmers and senior citizens with farm-support programs, rural electrification and Social Security.
Obama neglected to pursue any such political initiatives as these. He sought to govern from a base that former Colorado senator and presidential aspirant Gary Hart calls "reactionary liberalism." It is a declining base, and it couldn’t sustain a truly successful presidency, much less a transformational one.
Finally, Obama missed another crucial element seen in the stewardship of those presidents who actually managed to alter the course of the nation. They all united their party (most often an expanded party) while dividing the opposition. Obama did the opposite. He divided his own party while uniting the opposition.
When Reagan pulled those House Democrats to his fiscal initiatives in the summer of 1981, he pulled off a classic "divide-and-conquer" political strategy.
All truly consequential presidents have done the same thing.
Thomas Jefferson divided the Federalists to such an extent that, by the time he and his political acolytes had relinquished the White House twenty-four years after his initial election, the Federalists no longer existed. Lincoln’s carefully crafted position on slavery divided both the Democrats and Whigs along sectional lines, thus enabling him to pull off a presidential win with less than 40 percent of the vote. Roosevelt’s success in coalition building stirred intraparty battles among Republicans for decades.
Consider now the impact of Obama’s Affordable Care Act on the two parties. By going so boldly for a controversial approach that wasn’t underwritten by any national consensus, he drove a wedge through his own party, as congressional Democrats scrambled to follow the president’s leadership while maintaining voter approval. That proved impossible for many, as the 2010 midterm elections demonstrated. Meanwhile, Republicans found it politically expedient—and very easy—to rally to a unified GOP stance of opposition.
During the passage of Obama’s health legislation through Congress and the immediate aftermath of its enactment, many commentators speculated that, while public opinion opposed the measure during that fiery time, the public eventually would embrace the new health-policy structure, as it has other major federal programs. That proved to be false—and represents another political miscalculation of immense proportions. To the extent the Obama administration bought into that formulation, it created a trap for itself.
All this is relates to the political ineptitude of the Obama forces on the health issue, not on the constitutional ramifications laid bare by the Supreme Court. That’s a separate issue, and when the court speaks it becomes the final word on any issue at any given time. But, while the president won a big battle in the judicial arena, he faces ongoing controversy in the political arena. That’s the one in which the people will have the final say.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of several books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is "Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians" (Simon & Schuster).