Napoleon famously always asked if someone was lucky when considering promoting them. It is certainly the case that luck plays a big part in what historical figures achieve and an even bigger part in determining their future reputations. President Obama for instance was extremely lucky to be black at just the time this was no longer something that barred his political progress but was still enough of an obstacle for his successes to be enhanced by it. Nobody else will ever be the first black president, and being the second black president won’t pull in much kudos. In the future I predict the rise of Obama will be treated as some sort of defining historical event, and his own part in it will be exaggerated – a myth will be created.
He was also lucky in that there was a very obvious reform open to him. Uniquely amongst advanced countries, the United States has not implemented a comprehensive state funded health care system.
In most countries these are well established, well run and popular. They don’t cost a huge amount of money in the overall scheme of things. For most people on modest, or even quite decent, incomes they provide the huge peace of mind of knowing that if you have serious health problems these at least won’t be accompanied by crippling money problems. Basically they are a no-brainer as the Americans say. Once instigated no political party can suggest getting rid of it. It would be political suicide.
So President Obama was extremely lucky that this plum was hanging on a low branch outside his window just waiting to be plucked. Again, only one president can be the first to introduce it. In the future he will be looked back on as the founder of what is no doubt to become a great institution. The myth writes itself.
Of course in the real world life is a lot more complicated than that and the wheeling and dealing that has inevitably been required to pull this achievement off is unlikely to look all that heroic in the details. No doubt there were compromises and misjudgements. There are probably decades of work ahead while the Americans get the system to work – and in fairness the United States is a big and diverse place which presents challenges that places like the UK and Holland don’t. But myths don’t have to take these kind of things into account.
But the third stroke of luck for Obama is hard to believe. Because if there is one thing that helps a myth it is a good enemy. And boy oh boy have Obama’s enemies handed him a priceless gift. Obama didn’t choose the time of his birth or the colour of his skin. Equally, he can’t take any responsibility for the curious emergence of the Tea Party. But that these people should suddenly have chosen to get involved in politics has created a hugely helpful extra narrative to the myth. They have for a start christened the health care system Obamacare. No PR company on the planet could have pulled that one off.
And just as the scheme came into force they have created a dramatic scene in the Congress threatening to derail it at the last minute. And just to add to the delicious irony, they backed down at the last moment in the face of firmness from Obama. This is going to be written and rewritten and every time the opponents of healthcare will look more evil and the president more heroic.
The Tea Party is an odd thing. Political parties are usually composed of, and always run by, people who are interested in politics and generally know how to best go about getting what they want. Despite all the partisanship that the subject attracts, most politicians are basically decent people. It is quite possible to respect skilled practitioners of what Harold Wilson called the art of the possible, even if you disagree with their aims. The Republicans in America have a good a heritage and some solid achievements in their past. They aren’t to my political taste, but that doesn’t mean I have to be blind to their good points. But quite how they managed to get so sidetracked by a group of ill informed and basically not particularly bright individuals is most surprising. It will be fascinating to read the history books that will no doubt be devoted to explaining them. I think they are already waning and presumably the grown ups will be back in charge of the Republicans soon. But it is a real irony that the biggest impact that they are likely to have is turning their greatest bugbear into a mythic hero.
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Thanks to Wikipedia for the image.