Obama on climate and healthcare: master of compromise or sellout?

President Obama lauded the Senate's healthcare reform compromises as well as a symbolic agreeement at the Copenhagen climate-change summit. Both highlight Obama's willingness to accept what is politically possible.

Alex Brandon/AP
President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One in the snow as he arrives at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Saturday. The President rushed back from climate talks in Copenhagen to beat the worst of the weather and oversee the healthcare bill set to be voted on before Christmas.

The president who came to office vowing change instead has enshrined compromise as the hallmark of his administration.

President Obama’s most constant refrain in word and action has been “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” and this weekend has been a case in point.

The conclusions of both the Senate healthcare reform negotiations and the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, Saturday could be counted disappointments. But Mr. Obama’s incremental approach to governing built upon what liberals in his own parties might deem failures.

In short, it seeks to achieve what can be achieved rather than holding to specific ideas that are impractical politically.

It is an ideal that he shared with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, who took the long view of politics – compromising at first in order to provide a foundation for future reforms.

Those are the hopes that motivated Obama this weekend, his advisers and colleagues say.

Glass half full

The Senate’s healthcare reform bill does not have anything approaching a government-managed public option that Obama – and Democrats on the left – certainly wanted. Yet when Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska agreed to back the bill Saturday – bringing Democrats a filibuster-proof 60 votes – Obama hailed it as “genuine reform” nonetheless.

In Copenhagen, Obama stressed that without firm commitments to a timeline for reducing carbon emissions “any agreement would be empty words on a page.” At the end of the conference, however, he lauded just such an agreement – with no short- or mid-term goals and no mechanism for enforcement – as an “important breakthrough.”

On one hand, it is in Obama’s interests to promote his administration’s endeavors as successes. On the other, the agreement, however symbolic, marked a triumph of the possible, finding some measure of concord amid deep disagreement.

“When he arrived, the process was collapsing,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser, on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.

“Nobody says this is the end of the road,” he added. “This is a great step forward.”

No lines in the sand

Some of the same frustrations have been apparent in the healthcare reform debate. Liberals have grumbled as Obama failed to take a firm stand on either abortion rights or the public option.

Yet with Republicans firmly allied against the Democrats’ version of healthcare reform, compromises on the public option and abortion rights were crucial to cobbling together the 60 votes needed to pass a bill.

Moreover, the words of Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa Saturday emphasize the Obama administration’s long-term goals. He called the Senate bill a “starter home.”

“It has a good foundation – it covers 31 million Americans,” he said. “It has a good roof for protection – it cuts down on abuses, and it provides the biggest infusion of money in prevention and wellness that we’ve ever done. And, we can add additions and extensions to it as we go on in the future. It is not the end of healthcare, it’s the beginning.”


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