In India, every now and often, there emerges a passionate debate about the virtues of the Presidential system. Frustrated by coalition governments, hung Parliaments and ineffective Prime Ministers, we look longingly toward what we think of as a dynamic and effective alternative. In our imagination, Presidents can choose their equivalent of our cabinet of ministers from a pool of expert candidates not beholden to the political party of the President, or even involved in politics.
As any observer of American politics will attest, the reality is quite otherwise. Hamstrung by a Constitution that —in the words of one of my feisty professors in graduate school — “separated the hell out of the powers”, Presidents of the United States have had to constantly battle the other two branches of government — the judiciary and the legislative — to get anything done, not to mention working a system way more genuinely federal than India’s still centralised polity. Recent decades have seen a constant politics of gridlock as the two main parties have found it impossible to collaborate, and the Republican party, in particular, has moved ideologically so far to the right that bipartisanism is very much the exception than the rule.
Far from the tyrannical majority the founding fathers feared in constructing their elaborate system of checks and balances, it often seems that U.S. politics — and Presidents — are continually stymied by intransigent, but powerful, minority interests. This has been particularly true during the second term of recent Presidents, with neither Mr. Bill Clinton nor Mr. George W. Bush being able to accomplish much of anything as their Presidencies ground towards the end steeped in scandal in one instance and the quagmire of war in the other.
Highlights of a legacy
With over a year remaining in his second term, it seemed very likely that President Barack Obama was headed for a very similar fate. Yet, a fortuitous set of events in recent weeks raises the possibility that he may yet evade that ignominy. First, by a 6-3 vote the Supreme Court struck down an important challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — more commonly referred to as Obamacare by its critics — thus leaving in place a crucial part of the President’s legacy. Second, with the support of Republicans (and despite the desertion of a handful of Democrats), the President’s efforts to create the equivalent of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Pacific Rim countries, and eventually with the European Union, survived passage through Congress. Third, the United States Supreme Court legalised same sex marriage all across the nation. And finally, amidst the tragedy of the church massacre in Charleston, SC — where the first shots of the Civil War were fired over a 150 years ago — Mr. Obama’s eulogy for the slain pastor Clementa Pinckney showed his oratory, intelligence and compassion to stunning effect.
Battle for health care
Passed in March 2010, the ACA came after decades of failed efforts to establish a health-care system that covered most of the population. In its brief tenure, the ACA has provided coverage to 16 million formerly uninsured citizens with the latter dropping from 52 million a few years ago to just over 35 million today. These numbers would have been even more impressive had it not been for another judgment by the Supreme Court back in 2012. That judgment, on the one hand, upheld the Constitutionality of the ACA but, on the other, enabled individual states to block its effective implementation.
As many as 22 states currently are cutting their noses to spite their faces: they are willing to forego billions of dollars in federal funds — funnelled through an expansion of Medicaid — to thwart the ACA. Many of them were part of the slave-owning Confederacy and they would, even today, forego federal monies rather than see health care reach the largely African-American underclass in their own states; 36 states, 29 of them controlled by Republicans, have refused to establish exchanges where their citizens can buy health insurance through the ACA — forcing that burden back on the Federal government.
If these problems of implementation have to do with the persistence of racism and mainly Republican intransigence, the larger problems with the ACA owe to the way capitalism operates in the U.S. Unlike Western Europe or Canada, with their public health-care systems and universal coverage irrespective of means, the U.S. insists that everything be mediated through the private sector. The ACA essentially requires individuals to purchase their health insurance from private providers — but through subsidies provided by the government. Needless to say, the ACA has received the support of the private health insurance industry, whose stocks showed a sharp uptick in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision upholding these subsidies recently.
These same insurance companies, interested as they are in their bottom lines, have high deductibles, deny coverage on many pretexts, and are likely to increase their premiums whenever feasible. The ACA is better than having no health insurance at all, but for all too many poor people, that is not saying very much. This insistence on providing necessary and vital public or collective goods through the private sector — one can think of school vouchers in this context — often ensures outcomes are suboptimal for the consumer even if they are very profitable to corporate America.
Yet, one can argue, as many have, that it’s precisely this government subsidisation of the health insurance providers that enabled the ACA to be passed in the first place, and allowed Mr. Obama to succeed where a long line of Presidents from Truman through Mr. Clinton had failed. It possibly also accounts for why it has been upheld by the Supreme Court, why it evinces the support of corporate America, and why it is likely to survive into the future. The incredibly strong private-sector oriented capitalism of the U.S. exercises a strong restraint on what Presidents can do in domains such as health care.
Free trade pact
In a similar vein, the passage of the TPP is a success only for those who believe in the alleged benefits of free trade and expanded markets. For American workers and corporations worried about the export of jobs and loss of markets to areas with cheaper labour and laxer regulations, the benefits are dubious at best. More importantly, the legislation to pass the TPP (or specifically its eventual expansion to the European Union) introduced a provision that restricted it to companies that do not support BDS — the movement to Boycott, Divest and Sanction companies and institutions that have any truck with Israel. Some liberal groups are outraged that a trade deal with the EU includes a provision that will benefit Israel and penalise Palestine.
On the right to same-sex marriage, Mr. Obama was definitely a latecomer, joining that bandwagon in 2012 and even that only after Vice-President Joe Biden forged ahead on the issue. Though the White House was bathed in the rainbow colours signifying gay pride after the Supreme Court’s judgment, the reality is that nearly 2 out of 3 Americans support the rights of gays to same-sex marriage as do a majority of the states. For many of the militant segments of the queer movement, the “victory” represented the triumph of effective lobbying by affluent professionals among gays to gain access to the same benefits and provisions as their straight counterparts in (largely) corporate America. In their view, securing the right to marriage from the government inescapably underwrites conformist and conservative institutions such as government and marriage, and it belies the radical and revolutionary reimagining of society that a genuinely queer perspective ought to entail. Yet, Mr. Obama will undoubtedly get some credit as the Supreme Court legalised the matter during his watch.
Which brings us to Mr. Obama’s speech in Charleston at Rev. Pinckney’s funeral. With its superb analysis and measured condemnation of America’s legacy and present racism; its careful delineation of the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans, the punitive sentences and murderous police violence visited on them, and the more subtle discriminations in hiring and economic opportunities in general; its exasperation with America’s love affair with guns, and in its celebration of the Christian spirit of grace and forgiveness, the speech oscillated between an excoriating analysis of racism and a careful avoidance of extremism. You can see an extraordinarily intelligent and passionate man rein in every semblance of anger, knowing that change in his country was going to be slow, painfully and excruciatingly slow. Any display of anger by a black President would only prove to be counterproductive and energise the already inflamed lunatic fringe — which is of course worryingly more than just a fringe.
As one weighs Mr. Obama’s accomplishments in recent weeks and months, one has to assess them against what is possible in a society where many states and their governors would rather deny their poor access to health care if it means a lot of African-Americans might benefit; where every government initiative must redound to the benefit of the corporate sector if it has to stand any chance of being passed by Congress or withstand scrutiny in the courts; and where bipartisanship is so uncommon. Given the constraints all U.S. Presidents operate under, and given the additional burden Mr. Obama carries because of his race, his recent winning streak is both unusual and likely temporary. It would be churlish to grudge him his moment of success — so long as one also remembers that his every success is weighed down by the limitations of the society he leads.
(Sankaran Krishna is professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. E-mail: Krishna@hawaii.edu)
Keywords: US President Barack Obama, Obama Indian Summer, health care scheme, Presidential system, European Union, North American Free Trade Agreement, FTP