Thursday, January 21, 2010

I disagree, Mr. President

Obama is offering another olive branch to Republicans -- or is he trying once again to outflank them?  His message, as always, is subtle -- I think too subtle. It may not be quite what it seems, but it doesn't satisfy. Here's his exchange with Stephanopoulos regarding partisanship:
OBAMA:...I noticed that some of the Republicans are saying well, we actually wanted to do health care. We just didn't want...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Michael Steele said that to me this morning.
OBAMA: Exactly. So now in fairness, I think it's important to remind everybody that part of this process was having conversations with Republicans for months and asking them what exactly they wanted to do and what their solutions were to these problems.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You going to call them back in?
OBAMA: Well, I think that if they have clear plans, and clear ideas in terms of how to move forward on certain issues, I'm always open to that.

Look, I have every interest in seeing a unified country solving big problems. That is something that is very much in my interest because if that happens, not only do I have a successful presidency, but more importantly the country is successful.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But we're not there right now. How much of that is your fault that republicans and democrats haven't come together?

OBAMA: You know, we have a political culture that has built up over time that has gotten more and more polarized. My hope was a year ago today when I was being sworn in that reversing that process was going to be easier partly because we were entering into a crisis situation and I thought that the urgency of the moment would allow us to join together and make common cause. That hasn't happened. Some of it, frankly, is I think a strategic decision that was made on the side of the opposition that...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But they say you made a strategic decision to hand over your agenda to democratic leaders in Congress.

OBAMA: Well, let me finish -- let me finish the question. The -- I think that some of it had to do with a sense that the best political strategy was to simply say no. I think part of it had to do with the fact that you've got a lot of old habits and ideological baggage in Congress that have built up over time and people just aren't accustomed to working together. I mean, the Senate is a classic example of an institution that works only if people are talking, listening to each other, giving ground...

STEPHANOPOULOS: How do you make that happen?

OBAMA: Well, you know, it is my responsibility to try to reset the tone. And I'm going to have a State of the Union speech and one of my goals, I think, I spoke about this on King's birthday, the fact that I felt disappointed that we had lost some of that sense of common cause that existed a year ago and that I have not been able to change the tone here in Washington. I am going to keep on trying though. And the reason I'm going to keep on trying is, because if we can't do that, if all that's taken place back and forth between the parties is vitriol and accusations, then what's going to end up happening is that we're going to just keep on in a direction in which families are losing ground and they become further and further disenchanted with the possibilities of politics and government can solve any problems whatsoever.

It's hard not to wonder: does Obama not know that the Republicans want simply to destroy him? That they're determined to make health care his Waterloo?  That they've 'negotiated' in bad faith simply to stall long enough until something caved?  That if by some miracle he did negotiate something acceptable to a couple of Senate Republicans the House liberals who have balked at passing the current Senate bill would reject it?

Of course he knows all of this. He also knows that the basic architecture of the bill can't be scaled down:
If you ask the American people about health care, one of the things that drives them crazy is insurance companies denying people coverage because of preexisting conditions. Well, it turns out that if you don't -- if you don't make sure that everybody has health insurance, then you can't eliminate insurance companies -- you can't stop insurance companies from discriminating against people because of preexisting conditions. Well, if you're going to give everybody health insurance, you've got to make sure it's affordable. So it turns out that a lot of these things are interconnected. Now, I could have said, well, we'll just do what's safe. We'll just take on those things that are completely noncontroversial. The problem is the things that are noncontroversial end up being the things that don't solve the problem. And this is true on every issue.

So what is the solution? A glimmer of hope -- as well as another source of frustration --  here:

You're not advocating that the House pick up the Senate bill.

OBAMA: I think it is very important for the House to make its determinations. I think, right now, they're feeling obviously unsettled and there were a bunch of provisions in the Senate bill that they didn't like, and so I can't force them to do that. Now I will tell you, and I've said this before, that the House and the Senate bill overlap about 90 percent.

OBAMA: And so, it does seem to me that there should be a way of, after all this work and all this pain, there should be a way of taking what's best in both bills and going ahead and getting that done.

The obvious way of "taking what's best in both bills" remaining is for the House to pass the Senate bill and negotiate much of what it was seeking (or had already gained) in the bill-merger negotiations through reconciliation. Unions, which had much at stake in the interrupted compromise over the excise tax, favor this course; there support would seem to cover liberal Democrats. But how does that mesh with Obama's suggestion that it's necessary to reach out once more to Republicans?  How do you put these irreconciables together -- rallying House Democrats and reaching out to rejectionist Republicans? 

The headliner in this interview was Obama fessing up to not communicating the interconnected essentials of the HCR bills effectively enough. Perhaps reaching out to the Republicans once more to get his hand slapped away once more is part of this strategy. Perhaps, too, his quick pivot to propose splitting up megabanks by function -- calling for a ban on proprietary trading by banks that take deposits -- is inseparable from the segment of his pending communication offensive devoted to winning support on health care. He will be at once more explanatory, more populist, and more conciliatory.

But the 'conciliatory' part does not compute. I don't see the efficacy of reaching out once more to Republicans instead of slamming them for their bad-faith intransigience -- especially if you're trying to rally liberal Democrats to swallow-then-alter the Senate bill.  Obama suggested in this interview that they recognized that Coakley would likely lose a week prior to election day - who didn't? There was time to plan a strategy. Immediately following the election results, Democrats panicked en masse and were literally crying out for leadership. What is the rationale for Obama not stating firmly, publicly and loudly -- as Pelosi alone did -- that the Democrats would find a way to get a bill through? Why persist at this moment of apparent collapse with this message and stance:
Well, look, I'm not going to get into the legislative strategy. First of all, my job is to as president, is to send a message in terms of where we need to go. It's not to navigate how Congress....[answer cut off]

Maybe the Administration is rallying House dems behind the scenes to pass the Senate bill. Maybe Obama (or Rahm) held a knife to Barney Frank's throat and got him to reverse course on this front.l.Maybe I've been over-conditioned by the pre-emptive calls from Chait, Cohn, Marshall and (Ezra Klein) for swift firm public leadership from Obama plotting a specific course.

But I don't think so. I think that firm public leadership from Obama is exactly what the moment called for/is calling for. And I don't see it.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan argues the opposite, approving Obama's emerging strategy:

So let this process play out. Let Obama use SOTU to argue that nothing is not an option and if the Republicans prove they really do want nothing, then the argument for passing the Senate bill gets stronger. But doing this now, greeting public anxiety with contempt, would be dreadful politics.

It would destroy Obama's commitment to open dialogue and respect for the process, which has already been battered by some of the necessary sausage making to get a final deal. It would make Obama look like a brutally partisan president. That would break Obama's presidency.

I see no reason why Obama should not put the GOP on the spot now and ask them how they would solve the problems we face. One aspect of this is health insurance reform; the other is tackling the debt. Put them together in the SOTU and demand action.

The truth is: Obama has the better argument. He's right in understanding that the sheer tasks of government have made it hard for him to press this message day after day after day as the Democrats negotiated with themselves endlessly. So let the impact of Massachusetts sink in, expose the nihilism of the opposition, take the black eye as a necessary evil in such a turbulent time ... and fight on.

I think Obama can advocate for passing the Senate bill now and make the case publicly before it's a done deal.

1 comment:

  1. The time to talk to Repubicans is over. The time to argue is over. It's time to govern. Barry is painfully close to being seen as Carter II.

    IF you actually have to talk to Republicans (which you don't), give them a deadline for their plan, and hope that Barry has the stones to hold to it.

    The only fiddling that should be done to the bill is to make it more reasonable to the everyday man. After Lieberman, no one thinks the bill is worth much other than a red carpet for insurers to welcome 30 million new customers.

    Everything this bill was supposed to do, other than put people on the rolls, has been watered down or removed by the need to get 60 votes. We understand the need to follow the process to allow debate. We understand negotiation. But Barry needs to stand up for something and Harry needs to pass it. There's a process to follow when you need to get something done as well.

    Barry is inches away from being seen as indecisive and wimpy. The Republicans smell that. So does Putin, Ahmeni-crazy, Wall Street, Netanyahu, and a host of others.

    Stop talking, take a stand, and pass something.