Obama fighting for his presidency, not reform
By: Chris Stirewalt
August 17, 2009
The big question for President Barack Obama right now isn't about health care, but his own political survival.
If he fails to deliver health legislation, Obama will prove right those who said he was in over his head. That would make him something of a lame duck after only seven months in office.
But if he does manage to squeeze a bill out of Congress, it would be a Pyrrhic victory. By delivering unwanted changes to unwilling voters on a life-or-death issue, the president would squander the goodwill he earned during the campaign.
Voters now say passing nothing would be better than any of the plans stewing in Congress, so it's hard to imagine that lawmakers will return from their recess ready to take political risks.
Contrary to Obama's stump speeches, poll after poll shows more than three-quarters of Americans, including Republicans, want to see health care reformed.
But a new Rasmussen Reports survey says 54 percent of voters think Congress should just drop the subject this year. Only 35 percent said that any of the three plans would be better than nothing. That should be even more alarming to the White House than the growing majority that opposes the president's plan.
The president is plenty smart, and has shown preternatural political instincts. But he made a rookie mistake on health care, and it could be the undoing of his once-promising presidency.
Obama refused to develop and sell a plan to the American people in a straightforward way. Even with the glow of his halo starting to fade, the president might have succeeded this summer with an honest pitch. In doing so, he would have also established the adult phase of his presidency and ended the awkward adolescence of his administration.
Instead, he outsmarted himself by trying a bait and switch.
Obama said he was letting Congress work. Instead, he tried to sneak his plan through.
The New York Times reported last week on the shadow negotiations between the White House and the bipartisan working group on the Senate Finance Committee.
The president was cutting sweetheart deals with the biggest drug makers, labor unions and other interest groups all contingent on the bill being crafted in Sen. Max Baucus' committee. Team Obama was in constant contact with the Senate group.
But in the House, the administration was nowhere to be found. As one House Democrat said, "They have been -- what is a good way to put it? -- available for consultation."
Rather than letting the process work, the White House was using the process as cover. By letting the House cook up some medical monstrosity, as it inevitably would, Obama was going to make the Senate bill look like a sensible choice.
Instead of a $1 trillion-plus takeover with scary provisions about end-of-life counseling and abortion coverage, Obama would accept a Senate plan that would provide some tweaks to the bad old insurance industry, common-sense cuts to wasteful spending, and a new health insurance cooperative no more menacing than a farmers market.
And when House liberals complained that he had let them down by not delivering a new government-run health program, Obama could just give them a wink. Just vote for the plan, Rahm Emanuel would whisper, and when the co-op is an inevitable bust, the national health plan will kick in. As a former director of Freddie Mac, Emanuel knows something about collapsing into the arms of taxpayers.
What a perfect solution for a president who grabbed General Motors and Bank of America not because he wanted to, but because he had no choice. Accidental socialism is the Obama way -- all of the government, none of the guilt.
But instead, the White House finds that voters understand health care to be a long-term problem in need of a long-term solution. The bad bills brewed up in Congress won't make a compromise plan look better. They've just made voters wary of the process.
But worse for Obama, his end run damaged what was once his greatest asset -- the belief among voters that he was something different.
Endless evasions and then a crackdown on opponents has made Obama look like just another president -- and a cynical one at that.
Emotionally invoking his grandmother's November death over the weekend to shame his critics was just the latest in a series of shoddy ploys.
Can President Obama escape the wreckage of his health care effort? Yes, but only if he stops being so slippery and starts leveling with voters.
Chris Stirewalt is the political editor of The Washington Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com