January 20, 2010 was one of the very most memorable days of my eleven years in Washington. The previous evening Scott Brown had defeated Martha Coakley in a special election to fill the US Senate vacancy left by Ted Kennedy's death. Genuinely surprising electoral outcomes are rare, so it was natural that the political community was electrified by Brown's triumph. But to most observers the stunner also had a very concrete significance — the drive to pass an Obamacare bill through the United States Congress was dead.
Of course Republicans spun it that way. But many Democrats — including senior figures on and off Capitol Hill as well the President's own chief of staff — agreed as well.
The message of the election was clear. Obamacare was finished. The only question was what, if anything, could be salvaged from the wreckage. At the Center for American Progress, where I was working at the time, the halls were buzzing with scenarios. Maybe a bill to cover all kids? Some kind of Medicaid expansion? Having come so far toward universal coverage, nobody wanted to give up. But the crisis clearly required some dramatic turnabout. Some grand gesture to make it clear that the President "got it."
A cool head in a crisis
That's the day that came to mind as I was reading Josh Green's Businessweek story detailing Obama's alleged failings as a crisis manager.
From Deepwater Horizon to Ebola to ISIS, Green alleges, Obama's cool cerebral technocratic approach denies "the public's emotional needs." The president "disdains the performative aspects of his job." Consequently, he "struggles to strike the right tone." He is, in Green's view, a perpetual under-reactor who has "an excess of faith in government's ability to solve problems."
So about Scott Brown.
It turned out that a version of Obamacare had already passed the US Senate with a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. If House Democrats were willing to abandon their own version of health reform and pass the Senate bill, then the Senate could use the budget reconciliation process to enact some limited changes. Nothing about Brown's victory changed the fundamental reality. Democrats could have Obamacare if they wanted it, and if they didn't pass the law it would be because they decided not to, not because Brown's victory forced them out of it.
Nancy Pelosi was a strong advocate of this view, but it struck many party leaders as insane. Rep. Barney Frank, for instance, declared Obamacare dead on the night of Brown's win. Ultimately, however, Obama became the hero of his own administration by coming down on her side. He refused to give into the panic gripping the Democrats and focused in on the math of the situation — and there, it turned out, Democrats had more than enough votes to pass the bill. As a response to the Brown win, it made no emotional sense. But it did make sense. And today Obamacare is law.
Choose your poison
There's no single optimal temperament for all times and all places. Obama, by temperament, is a cool cucumber. I am not. At times, Obama might have been better served by a more emotional approach and an itchier trigger finger. But Obama was right during the political crisis of January 2010.
He was also right back in October of 2008 when the American banking sector seemed to be collapsing. It's easy now to forget those days, but George W. Bush, the actual president of the United States at the time, had all-but-disappeared from public view. Obama's opponent, John McCain, was never one to underreact. Most observers greatly appreciated the younger senator's ability to keep things in perspective and his evident dedication to trying to learn the relevant facts. It struck an appealing contrast with the erratic McCain and his campaign suspensions. Similarly, two months earlier, McCain was proclaiming "we are all Georgians now" in response to Putin's incursion into South Ossetia. A systematic overreactor would have had his finger much more on the public pulse when Ebola first arrived in Dallas. But he also might have embroiled the country in a nuclear war with Russia.
Critics, including Green, like to satirize Obama's cool by comparing him to Spock. But Spock, though often played for laughs, was a damn fine officer. His clear thinking not only saved the Enterprise on countless occasions but was instrumental in brokering a historic peace accord between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.
A president, not a pundit
Journalists have systematic professional incentives to overreact. You don't get ahead by writing boring stories, so you develop a nose for the provocative and start dealing in superlatives. Yet few people can make it through life acting purely out of cynicism. It helps enormously in this profession to be a genuine temperamental over-reactor. Certainly it's helped me.
The hot temperament consequently tends to dominate in the ranks of the media. And the media love nothing quite so much as a politician who shares their disposition. It's not a coincidence that McCain is, on a durable basis, the media's favorite senator.
He approaches his job as if you gave a Senate vote to a cantankerous but sharp newspaper columnist. But that path was never available to a young African-American liberal from Chicago. The alternative to cool and cerebral was "angry" and radical, a non-starter with white America.
But more than a political pose, an aversion to purely symbolic action has genuinely served Obama well at critical moments. Less cool heads would have abandoned Obamacare in January 2010. Obama persevered and it's worked. Obama's approach to the economy has been far from flawless, but it's not a coincidence that the USA has performed better since 2008 than Europe or the United Kingdom and weathered its financial crisis far better than Japan did in the 1990s.
The Deepwater Horizon crisis passed. The American Ebola crisis will also pass. HealthCare.gov got fixed. The Russian economy is reeling in the face of sanctions. Osama bin Laden is dead. The economy is growing. Obama hasn't always been a very effective pundit-in-chief (acute crisis moments aside, his inability to articulate public anger at Wall Street has been remarkable) but that's not actually his job. On the big stuff, he's been effective. And that's not a coincidence.