03/23/2010 04:29 PM

The World from Berlin

'A Huge Step Forward for the United States'

German commentators are unanimous in their praise of President Obama and the Democrats for pushing through massive health care reforms. But some feel Obama's tough-guy tactics dispel the earlier nice-guy, 'postpartisan' image and worry that it might be the biggest -- and last -- success of his presidency.

Most commentators in Germany seem pleased by the passage of health care reform in the United States on Sunday, hailing the legislation as a massive leap for the Western world's only nation that doesn't offer its people basic, universal health care. The health care overhaul that President Barack Obama will sign into law on Tuesday is meant to extend coverage to 32 of the almost 50 million Americans currently living without it.

This being Germany, though, the land of Sturm und Drang, editorialists are also quick to find dark clouds gathering on the horizon. Many fear the political costs for Obama -- who entered office just over a year ago on a message of hope both for the US and the world -- will be staggering. Many commentators worry that the victory will lead to Republican majorities in both houses of Congress following November's midterm elections -- and a de facto halt to any further Democratic Party reform measures. They also believe that the bare-knuckled manner in which Obama and Democratic congressional leaders muscled the legislation through has stripped the president of his magic aura. The fact that Obama's efforts at bipartisanship backfired and that health care reform was pushed through without a single Republican vote also shows that, even after a year in office, the president has still failed to reconcile a deeply divided America.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"In recent years, the world has lived through enough of these extremes: a congressional majority's mercilessness with a president who had a relationship with an intern; Congress's deafness to torture and a war waged on false pretenses; the regeneration of a political system within a single electoral cycle; and, now, a legislative process leading to a new health care system that the congressional minority has received as a sort of tyranny. This is the most important social reform that America has experienced in the last 50 years."

"Barack Obama has now accomplished his political masterpiece. It is his first and perhaps most significant achievement in office -- and it might also be the only one with any real staying power. With this vote in the House of Representatives, Obama has abandoned his role as the reconciler."

"This president will no longer be the father of the nation who is above party politics. Nor was it really a matter of choice. Obama needs to use authoritarian power to make it clear to his party how a majority acts. It's either with him or against him. Obama's decision was about his own political survival. If he had abandoned the reform effort or kept on trying to get a majority that included members from both parties, he would have looked weak and incapable of making a decision. But Americans don't elect weak presidents anymore."

"Health care reform is a major political achievement, an edifice that will be stabilized over the course of several years, after new elections and many legal decisions. In political terms, it has brought the president back into the Democratic camp and lent a hard foundation to his rhetorical openness and broad-mindedness. ... At the same time, Obama has pushed through a social reform in the US that he probably won't benefit from himself. The people who will benefit from it -- the majority of whom are currently uninsured -- tend not to vote. The congressional tour de force has cost him a year, many votes and his sacred aura."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"In the last few weeks, Obama has laid aside the final remnants of his disguise, that new style that brought him into office in Washington. At least in terms of domestic politics, this president is not the egghead idealist that many of the people who voted for him thought he was. Obama is a power politician who was willing to employ the very means that he denounced as detrimental to American democracy during his successful campaign to push through the most significant project of his term in office. Fickle Democrats were either cajoled or pressured using so-called Chicago rules. And some in the minority have even gone so far as to question the constitutionality of some of the methods that were employed."

"Given the climate of public opinion, Obama has a lot of work ahead of him in terms of convincing voters of the benefits of this 'historic' reform, particularly with the swing voters who played a role in getting him into office and who have now turned away from him in large numbers. But nothing is impossible, and nothing breeds success like success. At least Obama didn't pour oil on the fire and act triumphantly after his success with the vote. That was the right thing to do, especially because the battle over health care reform in particular has laid bare the deep ideological and political chasm that runs though American politics and society. The country is completely split, and all attempts to mend this divide have failed."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"More than a century after US President Theodore Roosevelt reached for the stars and dreamed of giving his people universal health insurance, Barack Obama has achieved something like a lunar landing in terms of social reforms in the United States. ... As Obama said after the vote, it was 'a victory for the American people' and 'a victory for common sense.' But only time will tell whether Obama is rewarded for it or punished with a loss of his party's majority in Congress."

"John Boehner and the Republicans he leads in the US House of Representatives actually believe that they are defending the 'best health care system in the world' against Obama's hostile takeover. But they don't seem at all bothered by the fact that this system leaves 46 million Americans without coverage and that its health care costs exceed those of all other nations."

"It may be that the victory of the president and common sense will lead to Democratic losses in the midterm elections in November. It's conceivable that the electorate will avenge itself for having been forced to pursue a certain type of happiness. But, even so, that would not be an argument that America doesn't urgently need this reform."

Left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Obama has finally actually accomplished something. The passage of health care reform legislation on Sunday night has guaranteed that his presidency will be 'historic' not just because of the color of his skin."

"Although it was gutted and flattened during a year of debate, Obama's reform is still a huge step forward for the United States. But the process also showed that Obama's intention to transform America's political culture is now completely part of the past. Matter-of-fact collaboration? Compromises? No dice. The growing bipartisan understanding reached during the financial crisis that state intervention isn't as diabolical as some once thought? Vanished. Obama was only able to push the legislation through because he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used all of the tools available in their political toolbox -- including the nasty ones. And that is exactly what it took to win over enough representatives in their own party. And it's a good thing that they did, too. But a long-term transformation in a way of thinking looks a lot different."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Health care reform in the United States is a big step forward -- and a very small one, too. It's big for Americans, who will now see one of the largest social reforms in decades. But it is a small one for Barack Obama and the world."

"The price Obama will have to pay (for victory) is high. The excruciatingly long legislative process has stripped the US president of his magic ... and there is no longer any trace of the bipartisanship and new style of governance Obama promised during the election."

"Given these facts, the first major success of Obama's presidency will also surely be his last. There has been hardly any progress with financial reform, the federal deficit is reaching record levels and Guantanamo has yet to be shut down. Given these problems, Obama will hardly have any time to deal with any other big, new projects, much less deal with any of mounting issues in conflict hotbeds. And if his party loses in November's midterm elections, his will for reform will be even further diminished -- as well as his party backing."

"For Europeans, the victory means that, for the time being, they can bury the hopes they placed in Obama -- that he would save the environment or reconcile warring parties. The world will have to get by without him at least until the fall elections. If not longer."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"It is a victory that will probably rescue Barack Obama's entire presidency. By getting health care reform passed, (Obama) now has something to his credit that can't be taken away from him. Obama's critics have always said he can't deliver results. But now that charge will no longer hold any water."

"Still, this hard-earned victory has come at a high price -- one that will be paid by all Democratic politicians, and not just the president. The Republican opposition won't let the issue of health care reform drop. To the contrary, the conservatives will spend even more time denouncing the reform as a catastrophe for America all the way up until the midterm elections in November. And since it will be a long time before the population starts to feel the effects of the legislation, their will be plenty of time for making things up rather than focusing on the facts."

"But that's not the only downside of this victory. In political terms, it is absolutely not a success given that it was only Democrats who pushed through the most important piece of legislation in a century. The fact that not a single member of the minority in the US House of Representatives voted in favor of the reform is a unique event in the history of the United States."

"At the same time, the controversies surrounding health care reform also show just how insecure people in America are currently feeling. Given the real-estate crisis, job losses and an uncertain future for Social Security, people don't know which direction to turn. They aren't sure whether the myth of freedom is actually still strong enough to pull everyone out of the quagmire, nor whether the state should be given more responsibility in solving the problem. And politicians don't know the answer, either."

-- Josh Ward


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