Thursday, March 04, 2010

Obama announces the final push on health care reform

Obama's speech yesterday (HERE) announced in the clearest possible terms that, as far as he and the Congressional Democratic leadership are concerned, the moment of truth has arrived for health care reform. They intend to Pass the damn bill, to stop playing games, and to face down Republican obstructionism. Obama made the closing arguments for his health care reform package, which are worth reading, and concluded this way:
In the end, that’s what this debate is about – it’s about the kind of country we want to be. It’s about the millions of lives that would be touched and in some cases saved by making private health insurance more secure and more affordable.

At stake right now is not just our ability to solve this problem, but our ability to solve any problem. The American people want to know if it’s still possible for Washington to look out for their interests and their future. They are waiting for us to act. They are waiting for us to lead. And as long as I hold this office, I intend to provide that leadership. I don’t know how this plays politically, but I know it’s right. And so I ask Congress to finish its work, and I look forward to signing this reform into law. Thank you.
Ezra Klein summed it up:
What's important about this speech is that it didn't leave any paths open. It attacked the Republican bills, the arguments for piecemeal reform, and the idea that procedural impediments are sufficient to excuse the further delay of a verdict. This is the end of the line. There's not a magic alternative behind the curtain or a hard reset that will lead to a harmonious bipartisan process. It all just is what it is. And now it's time for a vote. It's time for health-care reform to either pass or fail.
=>For John Judis, both the content and the tone of Obama's speech have implications that go beyond the health care reform fight. Judis is a reliably shrewd and insightful political analyst, and he could be right about that, so I recommend reading his piece in full. Some highlights:
In his speech today in the White House East Room, President Obama clearly indicated that he is going to press for a comprehensive, and not a piecemeal or “skinny,” health care reform bill. He also made it abundantly clear that he will accept, if necessary, a party-line simple majority vote in the House and the Senate in order to get the bill through. Reconciliation here we come.
Right. One clarification has to be added here, though, since it's a point that seems to get lost in a lot of public discussions. In procedural terms, the "budget reconciliation" maneuver will not be used to pass the bill itself, which has already been passed, using normal procedures, by both the House and the Senate--unlike many important bills that the Republicans have pushed through over the past three decades using reconciliation. Now, according to the plan, the House will enact the Senate version of the bill, which is procedurally straightforward. The filibuster-avoiding reconciliation device will be used to enact a separate package of fixes that will (yes) reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.
Moreover, he is now drawing clear lines between the politics of Democrats and the politics of Republicans. "Republicans," he said, "believe the answer is to loosen regulations on the insurance industry--whether it's state consumer protections or minimum standards for the kind of insurance they can sell. I disagree with that approach. I'm concerned that this would only give the insurance industry even freer rein to raise premiums and deny care.” And in summing up, Obama said that that if Republicans “truly believe that less regulation would lead to higher quality, more affordable health insurance, then they should vote against the proposal I’ve put forward.”

Those are strong words. They make clear that Democrats and Republicans don’t share the same politics. Obama portrayed Democrats as the patrons of a “middle class that gets squeezed” by higher insurance costs. Republicans, on the other hand, were tarred as friends of the insurance industry who are willing to let the WellPoints of the world run amok.
This leads us to Judis's larger prognosis: No more "bipartisan" naivete in 2010.
Obama’s speech represents a major departure from the politics of his presidential campaign and of his first year in office. In his campaign, Obama pledged to defy partisan gridlock and to “change the way Washington works.” During the campaign, some liberal commentators believed that he was merely employing a clever tactic to highlight the rigid partisanship of his opponents. “If we understand Obama's approach as a means, and not the limit of what he understands about American politics, it has great promise as a theory of change,” Mark Schmitt wrote in The American Prospect.

But it is now evident that Obama’s approach was what he understood about American politics—it was the guiding light gleaned from his years as an Illinois state senator—and he planned to apply it to Congress. And it was, of course, nonsense. Republicans were able to use Obama’s naiveté about their motives to undermine his initiatives. As Noam Scheiber explains in his profile of Rahm Emanuel, the principal obstacle to getting health care reform through Congress last year was Obama’s dogged insistence last summer that Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus continue to plug away at nailing down a bipartisan agreement. What Obama got was not an amicable agreement but a summer of discontent, highlighted by Senator Charles Grassley’s denunciation of Democratic “death panels” and by the emergence of the Tea Party movement. [...]

However, in Obama’s speech today, and in his artful performance at the health care summit last week, he showed that he has learned something from his first year in office. Obama is now using the rhetoric of bipartisanship as Schmitt and other liberals thought he was doing in 2008: He is using it to paint Republicans as intransigent. He clearly no longer believes that a bipartisan agreement on health care is possible.
Or on any other major legislation, for that matter. If Judis's analysis is correct--and, at the very least, I find it plausible--then a turn toward greater political realism on Obama's part is a positive development. But Judis adds an important caveat, and here I think he is definitely on-target:
Obama has now adopted a strategy that will allow him to get his programs through Congress [JW: maybe], but he doesn’t yet have the vocabulary that will allow him to convince wide swaths of Americans that these programs are essential. And that’s not an uncommon failing. It’s not as if he lacks a vocabulary that other liberals or Democrats (like the writers on these pages or his fellow politicians) possess. How to frame government initiatives in a way that acknowledges but also overcomes American anti-statism has been, and remains, a major political challenge for Democrats. But in beginning to draw clear distinctions between the Democratic and Republican approaches, Obama has taken the first important step toward meeting that challenge.
So what will the politics of 2010 look like? If Judis is right, we're in for a bruising year. Actually, we don't even need Judis to tell us that. The Congressional Republicans are finally being called out on their unprecedented level of all-out obstructionism, but rather than showing any embarrassment about it, they are escalating their obstructionism and threatening to escalate it even further. Judis closes with this carefully hedged, admittedly speculative prediction:
And let me say one other thing. I hate political predictions, and I have certainly heard my fill of them lately. The recent Conservative Political Action Conference echoed with predictions that the Republicans would obliterate the Democrats in November 2010. And the esteemed Charlie Cook has recently pronounced the Democrats to be toast in 2010. But—and there are some “ifs” coming—if Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid can get the health care bill through Congress and on to Obama’s desk, and if Obama has truly learned his lesson and begins to draw a sharp distinction between the Democrats’ approach and the Republican approach, and if he begins to propose initiatives that highlight this distinction, the Democrats will retain the House and Senate in November. They will probably lose seats, but they won’t get obliterated.
I guess we'll see.

--Jeff Weintraub

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