Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Is it already too late?

It's the height of folly to prognosticate about a high-stakes speech a half hour before it's delivered.  But I have to confess this sick feeling before the event.

The stakes have been eloquently framed by the TNR editors, Andrew SullivanEzra Klein, and House members and Senators literally crying out for leadership.  What bothers me is that a failure of leadership from Obama has already occurred. It's not irreversible -- many have said that a powerful appeal for comprehensive health care reform in the State of the Union address would be enough to stiffen Democrats' resolve to pass the Senate bill in the House and negotiate fixes through the reconciliation process. But I don't see that happening. I see Obama trying to thread a rhetorical needle -- expressing "commitment" to "comprehensive" reform without saying how, or when.  Here's an excerpt from his speech released by the White House:
By the time I’m finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance. Millions will lose it this year. Our deficit will grow. Premiums will go up. Co-pays will go up. Patients will be denied the care they need. Small business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether. I will not walk away from these Americans. And neither should the people in this chamber.

That is by way of fleshing out an earlier promise from Dan Pfeiffer:
“There will be additional details that he will share tonight, and he will make it clear that his commitment to addressing this challenge in a comprehensive way is as strong today as it was when he stood in the same spot in September to address the nation on health care.”
I am not reassured.  As Ezra Klein points out, Obama's own statements since the Massachusetts debacle have pulled in two directions, probably reflecting a divided White House. He suggested in one interview that Democrats might have to go back to the Republicans once more to see what elements of the reform package might win bipartisan agreement -- and then stated eloquently -- in the same interview -- that the core elements of reform -- community rating, individual mandate, subsidies, cost control -- cannot be pulled apart.  What that spells to me, given the vagueness of Pfeiffer's reassurance, is a gesture toward trying to find bipartisan consensus, followed by a belated effort to go with the so-called "Plan B" -- passing the Senate bill and adding reconciliation fixes.  That would mean trimming tonight -- not saying what Democrats have literally been crying out for him to say. And not striking before the iron shatters into a hundred pieces.

What unambivalent supporters of reform want Obama to say is really quite simple: both the House and Senate passed strong, comprehensive bills, either of which would vastly improve the nation's health care system. The task before Congress now is the same task they were focused on before the Massachusetts election: combining the best elements of both bills. The logistics of doing so are now much harder -- but passage of an end product is assured if Democrats can muster the will.  And this is circular: they would muster the will if the message from the White House was clear were clear and strong.  So far it hasn't been. If that changes tonight, I'll be delightedly surprised.

UPDATE 9:55: Could have been worse. He defended the broad outlines of the bill eloquently, and per preview, said he would not walk away and that Congress has to find a way. But he did not say how. There was the gesture/invitation to bipartisanship I anticipated, but it seemed designed merely to put Republicans on the defensive. His prescription pointed toward the House passing the Senate bill without calling for it. Will he now help to drive Democrats that way?  Jury's still out.

As a case for the HCR bills already passed addressed to the American people it was effective.  To move the needle in Congress, he will need to do more.

Update 10:05: In context of "changing our politics," an oblique swipe at Democratic panic on health care (which he's done nothing to stanch): "People expect you to solve problems, not run for the hills."
In peroration: "Remember this - I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone." Yes, but how about leading for change -- in Congress, by insisting that Democrats pass the damn bill?

I think in retrospect that supporters of health care reform set impossible expectations for the health care portion of the speech. There was no way, while speaking to the entire nation, that he was about to tell Democrats to "pass the damn bill." You don't talk about "reconciliation" (of the technical legislative variety) in a SOTU address. The time to do that was before -- and after.  He defended the bill's basic architecture and said that the task would get done. That was all he could do in this forum. The test of leadership continues.

Then too, his calm, humor and perspective may ease the panic a bit.

Incidentally, I thought it was a nice touch for Obama to explain that his budget freeze would not kick in until next year, when the recession will presumably be over. He ad-libbed a bit of humor into the prepared remarks below, paraphrased  from memory in brackets. This is emblematic of the needles he has to thread, both in policy and politics -- making a down payment on deficit reduction while continuing stimulus to combat 10% unemployment.
I know that some in my own party will argue that we cannot address the deficit or freeze government spending when so many are still hurting.  I agree, which is why this freeze will not take effect until next year, when the economy is stronger. [That's how a budget works.]
Postscript: My own Congressman, Bill Pascrell, D-NJ (8th District) is working to kill comprehensive health care reform. My message to fellow Pascrell constituents is here, on South Orange Patch.

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