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The other message sent by Barack Obama during his visit to the White House

Barack Obama’s official script return celebrated at the White House Tuesday was all about the Affordable Care Act. And Obama stuck to it, mostly, focusing on the law achievements and the ongoing efforts to build on this success.

But if you listened carefully, you also heard the former president address a second subject: the difficulties of governing in a world where so many political forces stand against you.

In this part of the speech, Obama seemed to be addressing his longtime critics in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

And whether or not you agree with his view, the topic seems particularly relevant now that President Joe Biden and his allies are struggling to push their agenda through Congress.

The left’s ambivalence towards the Obama presidency

The Obama presidency has long caused ambivalence among some progressives, particularly on social media, over the theory that he was too quick to curb his ambitions, too shy to take on Republicans, too concerned with the big bucks and too eager to enter into agreements.

The Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” is a big part of that narrative. If Obama had fought harder, it is thought, he could have gotten Democrats to pass legislation with more generous insurance subsidies, government negotiation of drug prices and a “public option” with coverage. cheaper and more reliable than private insurance offers.

On Tuesday at the White House, Obama readily acknowledged the law’s shortcomings, noting that millions of people in America still don’t have health insurance or struggle with high premiums and out-of-pocket expenses. But, he says, “we had to compromise, we didn’t get everything we wanted. …in the story, what you see is that it’s important to start something, to plant a flag, to lay the groundwork for further progress.

You may have heard Obama say things like this before. I certainly ― among other things, during a meeting for a book i wrote on the Affordable Care Act.

In that conversation, he talked about underestimating the depth of Republican opposition and the need to address institutional issues in Congress like the filibuster. At the same time, he defended (and celebrated) the law “because it passed, and 20 million people got health insurance, and it’s still here.”

My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that there is plenty of ground to question individual decisions, whether by Obama or other party leaders at the time. It is not so easy to imagine better decisions producing considerably more ambitious legislation – the vested interests were simply so powerful, the legislative glove so difficult, the political environment so toxic.

It’s easy to forget now, but the whole effort nearly fell apart several times. The final legislation cleared Congress by the slimmest of margins – and that was only after concessions to Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, the two most conservative senators in the Democratic caucus.

You could say that achieving anything under these circumstances was a miracle.

And that brings us to today.

Strategy Democrats Tried This Time

In recent years, progressive criticism of Obama has loomed large in the Democratic collective consciousness, with obvious effects both on the 2020 Democratic primary debate campaign and, more recently, on deliberations over what became the “Build Back Better” legislation.

The original starting point for this legislation was a package of measures to address climate change, early childhood education and several other priorities – at a cost to the federal government of $3.5 trillion over 10 years. This figure was in fact a kind of compromise: Bernie Sanders, leader of the progressive wing, wanted to spend 6,000 billion dollars.

Compromise was inevitable and progressives, despite their reputation as strategic nihilists, made clear their willingness to do so. The hope was simply that with such an ambitious opening bid, the final deal would also be more ambitious.

But just as Obama had to deal with Lieberman and Nelson, Biden must push bills through a Senate where conservative Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have vetoes. And for now, negotiations have stalled because Manchin said even a considerably smaller bill was too big for his liking. There is a real possibility that the Democrats end up passing nothing at all.

To be clear, this is not the end of the story. Democrats could still find a consensus, and if they do, they could very well approve legislation that includes provisions to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, which Obama was in the White House promoting. But any legislation passed is sure to fall far short of what Democrats originally hoped to pass.

Progressives and other supporters of ambitious legislation would be disappointed by this – and that would be understandable, given the very real and very urgent needs they are trying to meet. But as Obama reminded his audience on Tuesday, sometimes the best we can do is lay the groundwork for future change while helping a lot of people along the way.

“Everyone gets frustrated with what’s going on in this city sometimes — progress seems way too slow,” Obama said. “Victory is often incomplete, and in a country as large and diverse as ours, consensus is never easy. What the Affordable Care Act shows us is that…if you are persistent, stick with it and work through the obstacles and criticism and continually improve where you fail, you can make America better.

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