Why Obama has room to maneuver on Iran

While polls show that Americans would ultimately use force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the bipartisan congressional and public recoil against military action in Syria this fall probably offers a more revealing picture of the nation’s mood after Afghanistan and Iraq. “I think from the public’s standpoint, we are back to where we were in the mid-1970s [after Vietnam],” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. “That skepticism about overseas involvement in general and military involvement in particular is going to last for some years now.” And that means most Americans are likely to give Obama a long rope on diplomacy before they conclude force is the only option left for deterring Iran.

If the public mood Obama inherited has broadened his opportunities in Iran, it has constrained him on health care. From the start, the debate over the health care law has unfolded in an atmosphere of pervasive skepticism about government. When Lyndon Johnson passed Medicare in 1965, more than three-fifths of Americans said they trusted Washington to usually do the right thing; in the decades since, scandal, war, and economic struggle steadily corroded that number, to around one in four by the time Obama passed the health reform law in 2010. (After three more years of economic stagnation and political gridlock, those numbers have fallen still further.) That’s the sheer wall of skepticism, especially among whites, that Obama must scale to build support for expanding government’s role in health care.

Since taking office, Obama has made the case for activist government more aggressively than Bill Clinton did. But Obama never formulated a clear strategy for rebuilding trust in Washington. On the one hand, he didn’t focus as much as Clinton did on reforms (like work for welfare recipients or shrinking the federal workforce) that might reassure skeptical voters about government’s capacity and efficiency. On the other, he (correctly) discarded as politically unrealistic bright-line transformative ideas such as single-payer health care or breaking up big banks. That vastly increased his chances of passing legislation but meant that even his successes (like health care and financial reform) produced programs of dizzying intricacy that require government to “thread the needle” between contending interests, as Yale University political scientist Stephen Skowronek says. “You can’t mobilize around these things. They are just problem-solving.”