Wednesday, February 03, 2010

How Obama will -- and won't -- lead on health care reform

Steve Benen has the very section of Obama's meeting with Senate Democrats (cut up and elided) that I was struggling to transcribe from the tape:
"All that's changed in the last few weeks is our party has gone from having the largest Senate majority in a generation to the second-largest Senate majority in a generation," Obama said. "If anybody is searching for a lesson from Massachusetts, I promise you the answer is not to do nothing."

He added, "I know these are tough times to hold public office. The need is great; the anger and anguish are intense." While "the natural political instinct is to tread lightly, keep your head down and play it safe," he said, Democrats should remember the promises they made in their election campaigns.

"So many of us campaigned on the idea that we're going to change this health-care system" Obama said. ..So many of us looked people in the eye who had been denied because of a pre-existing condition, or just didn't have health insurance at all ... and we said we were going to change it..*. "Well, here we are with a chance to change it....I hope we don't lose sight of why we're here. We've got to finish the job on health care."  We've got to finish the job on regulatory reform. We've got to finish the job, even though it's hard."
A few notes on what's left out of that excerpt: Obama said in effect that health care reform was a kind of quintessence of why his audience sought office as Democrats in the first place: "there's a direct link between the work you guys did on [the health care bill] and the reason you got into public office."  He praised the "tremendous work" that the Senators had done to put the bill together. He said that the negotiation process was productive -- "the ultimate package is better than what we started with," and ticked off what the bill purports to accomplish. But he added that they all paid a price for letting transparency slip toward the end of the process - by implication, when the deals were cut for specific favors for Louisiana and Nebraska. He reprised his challenge to House Republicans to "let me know" if they had credible ideas to insure the uninsured - - instead of suggesting that they could essentially do it for free.

Benen also highlights what Obama continued to refrain from doing: "Obama didn't give lawmakers specific instructions -- at least not publicly -- but he made clear they must take advantage of this opportunity and deliver on the promise of reform."  In this session, the strategy in which this hands-off approach is embedded continued to come into sharper focus.  His message had the same structure and elements as his encounter with House Republicans, the State of the Union address, and his less successful interview with George Stephanopoulos on Jan. 21.

Those elements are: 1) acknowledge the need for bipartisan cooperation. 2) Challenge the Republicans to "let me know" their ideas while challenging those ideas as purely cosmetic and linking them to "failed policies of the past." 3) Praise the substance of the HCR bill and other legislative accomplishments of the past year. 4) Acknowledge that the "lack of transparency" at the end of the HCR process has to be redressed. 5) Exhort Democrats in a general way to pass a comprehensive bill; let it be known indirectly that it's not feasible to start over or cut the bill into parts.

The idea seems to be to create a new political climate that will give the Democrats some cover to get the job done on HCR.  In theory it makes sense, and the execution since the SOTU has been increasingly impressive (it was weak in the Jan. 21 interview). Perhaps it will work. Perhaps he's building a stronger basis for popular suport for the health care reform bill than he could have if he'd simply weighed in forcefully in the immediate aftermath of Massachusetts and insisted that House Democrats 'pass the damned [Senate] bill' and fix it via reconciliation. But still. It's worth keeping in sight what Obama did not do, and continues not to do -- and what I would still say he has failed to do.

Last night, I was talking about the health care bill and perceptions of Obama with my twentysomething son Benjamin. He said that the mass of his friends still tremendously admired Obama but were not really locked in to the legislative battles, specifically to what's happening or not happening with the health care bill.  Then he said that if Obama told them to act to save health care reform -- e.g., to call their senators and congressional reps and tell them they wanted comprehensive reform -- they would do it. (He's put up a website to make it easy to do so.)

That made me think about Organizing for America, the Administration's political outreach arm. I get their emails. They asked supporters to phone Massachusetts voters for Coakley and I did it, plugging into the familiar machinery of script and call list. That raises the question:  In the wake of the MA election, why isn't OFA asking supporters to call their reps and senators and tell them to pass a comprehensive HCR bill?

One can feel, by now, how discordant such a move would be with Obama's stance and strategy.  Obama is trying to appeal to the whole country; he's trying to resell the HCR bill to moderates, independents, nonpolitical people.  There is at least the gesture toward reaching out again to Republicans for "ideas," even as he praises the architecture and core provisions of the bills that have passed both chambers.

But still, the lack of tell-us-what-to-do leadership feels wrong.  House and Senate Democrats have been openly asking for it.  Obama's supporters would respond to it.  The Administration's chief political nemesis right now is wavering Democrats (like my own frightened rep, Bill Pascrell). They are likely to get more scared and more focused on their own reelection as time goes by, not less.  The bill can be sold in the same terms once it's passed.  So why not seize the reins?

UPDATE 2./4: Jonathan Cohn sees pretty much the same pattern I do in Obama's pronouncements on health care this week.

UPDATE II 2/4: Bearing out Benjamin's sense that young voters' political engagement was tightly tied to Obama, Newsweek suggests that young voters will tune out in en masse November if the Democrats don't pass HCR.

UPDATE III 2/4: Via Sam Stein, a disturbing postscript:
Despite urging Democratic senators on Wednesday to forge ahead on health care reform, President Obama and his aides have been largely hands-off in guiding the legislative process, Senate aides tell the Huffington Post. And on Thursday a leading Senate progressive called out the White House publicly for abandoning the leadership role that is needed to get legislation passed.

"The president was weighing in pretty heavily on the discussions between the House and Senate before the Massachusetts special [Senate] election," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told Huffington Post. "It's dried up since."


* Benen's relay of these statements, from the Washington Post, was a bit oddly carved; I altered the order of some of the quoted fragments at this point.

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  1. OFA isn't urging supporters to lobby timid congresscritters because it is a wing of the Democratic National Committee.

    I think, when the history of this administration is written, that the decision to fold OFA into the DNC will be noted as an early, unforced error. This didn't have to be this way, and a fair number of people that wanted it to stay outside ended up of late over at

  2. Ten minutes ago I was called by a local OFA volunteer and asked to call Senator Snowe and others in the Maine congressional delegation.

  3. Thanks, Wendell, for the correction re OFA - I should have known that. As for boldprogressives, I recently unsubscribed, as it seemed to me they were undermining support for the House passing the Senate bill -- though the language in their emails is often ambiguous. But they and Moveon I believe sapped liberal enthusiasm for the whole effort.

    Anon: Did OFA ask you to call Dem congressional reps? And ask them to do what?

  4. OFA in Indiana has been getting volunteers to call congressmen for 5-6 months.

  5. thanks dad. for burying the link past the "read more" (kidding!). i'll repeat it here just in case: Call Congress For Health Care. there's phone numbers and emails for all house reps and i'm hoping people will visit, call (or email), and use the site to share a record of their call with others.

  6. Most of OFA's work is at the local level. They save the national pushes for shock and awe - see the 300,000 calls dropped on the hill a couple months ago.

    Once a package is finalized ready to come to the floor you'll see another flood.

  7. I know OFA did calls for healthcare in the fall. What the post was commenting on was the lack of a push in the wake of Massachusetts. But the string explains why that is pretty well.