Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Obama's Deficit Gap: Hope in the Best but Not Prepare for the Worst

I don't know if the president is deliberately killing the public option or whether he doesn't know how to negotiate but by suggesting (at this point in time) that we could have a reform package that does not include the public option he looks very weak. President Barack Obama is getting hammered. His poll numbers are dropping and too many Americans believe that the worst false rumors are true so now health care reform opponents will of course rile the crowd to go after the swing voting Democrats to kill the employer mandate (forcing them to purchase health insurance) as well as the undefined co-op.

The president's concession (or perhaps more fairly, hint of a concession) is coming at the wrong time. Since it was delivered at a time when his job approval ratings have been slipping it will be perceived as tactical retreat that will only further encourage the health insurers to continue their onslaught against reform.

At some point the president will have nothing to negotiate over since he would have conceded everything. and for what reason? He won't get the Republicans on board. Maybe Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) but that's it if at all. And he should have known this too. One need only look at the vote over his economic stimulus package. Not one Republican Congressman or woman voted for the bill. He fared better in the Senate, where he won the support of three, repeat that, THREE Republicans after watering the stimulus bill down a little. One Republican switched parties after facing the ire from his conservative constituents who threatened to vote for his primary opponent. Now he faces a challenge from the left in his new party.

Rush Limbaugh explicitly stated that he wanted the president to fail. Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carlina) said health care reform could be the president's Waterloo. Several conservatives have accused the president of being a racist who hates white men. Others have refused to distance themselves from those comments (David Frum, Kathleen Parker, Peggy Noonan, Joe Scarborough, and David Brooks being the notable exceptions). We knew this would happen and the presiden's team was still, even with these tell-tale signs, caught unprepared.

I am very troubled by the president's strategy. He understandably tried to get Congress to write a bill so that it would survive the onslaught the Clinton plan faced in 1994 but he set no parameters and then he enters the debate at a point when the cause is almost lost. We saw this same problem with the economic stimulus package and we saw this earlier when he was on the campaign trail. When the president thinks he is ahead in the polls he behaves as if Congress would just do his bidding. No argument is needed. Congress will pass the bill and then his administration will move on to the next issue. Presidential leadership wasn't exerted until it looked as if the economic stimulus package wouldn't make it through the senate and it hasn't been exerted with respect to the health care debate until the president went to a few town halls last week.

The opposition knows what the stakes are and have conducted themselves accordingly. Their scare tactics succeeded. Opponents (both thoughtful and not so thoughtful) were bused to congressional town hall meetings to disrupt our legislators while they tried to defend the health care bill. Passing complex legislation like health care reform takes work and it takes leadership. If he was serious about reform he woul cut his vacation to Martha's Vacation short, go to a few more town hall meetings and maybe even a second press conference on health care reform, speak to the nation from the oval office and meet with the Democrats who are still on the fence.

Addendum: I largely agree with this statement made by Eugene Robinson at The Washington Post:

"Giving up on the public option might be expedient. But we didn't elect Obama to be an expedient president. We elected him to be a great one."

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