The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Still Believer

Obama’s “Turning Point” on Healthcare Is a Refusal to Budge

“I still believe we can act even when it's hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things and that here and now we will meet history’s test. Because that is who we are. That is our calling. That is our character.”

So concluded President Obama in his Joint Address to Congress on healthcare. Conventional wisdom ran that this speech had to be a game changer; polls show falling support for both the plans currently working their way through Congress as well as the President’s own popularity. Obama, as seems his wont, responded strongly but unexpectedly. Rather than calling for the “do over” that Republicans demanded and many conservative Democrats hoped, Obama instead vowed that 1) healthcare reform was not a game and 2) he was not changing his core positions on anything.

He outlined what he called “his plan” but as a set of goals rather than specific policies. He spoke out robustly and specifically against the lies, distortions, and fear mongering practiced by his critics but remained frustratingly vague on exactly how he would pay for reform. In its place, he offered an exact price tag and sworn promises not to increase the federal deficit or raid Medicare. He remained open about a government-run “public option” but gave his most convincing arguments to date on why one was necessary as well as why Americans need not fear it.

As an orator, Obama ran the gamut. At times, he was genuinely inspiring, the most notable example of which was quoting a posthumous letter from the late Ted Kennedy and using it to develop a moral argument for reform. Such an appeal could have backfired in mawkish sentimentality and perhaps it did outside the Beltway. Inside the House Chamber, however, even Republicans sat in rapt attention during the last ten minutes of Obama’s speech.

At other times, Obama was guilty of some of the most cringe-inducing rhetoric of his career, the most notable example of which was referencing the acrimonious debate of the past several month with the phrase, “While there remain some significant details to be ironed out . . .” That earned him mocking, and deserved, laughter from the GOP side of the aisle.

Obama offered several rebukes to Republican lawmakers. He also offered olive branches by drawing on an idea first proposed by Senator John McCain of Arizona and promising to re-institute Bush Administration test programs aimed at medical liability tort reform. However, these were mere tokens, tendered more in the hopes of toning down Republican opposition than acquiring their bipartisan support.

Obama seemed finally to understand that Republican cooperation on this bill is a lost cause. Democratic legislators have offered their GOP counterparts virtually no significant concessions and Republicans have shown zero interest in supporting any Democratic plan that differs significantly from their own agenda. The gridlock may be mutual but that only makes it all the more complete and unyielding.

Republicans seem to get it too. They chose Representative Charles Boustany of Louisiana to deliver their response, presumably hoping his credentials as a former practicing heart surgeon would offer gravitas. What is more, Boustany is firmly a member of the far-right wing of the GOP. In spite of this, his rebuttal to Obama’s long address was curiously short in length and passion – more flat than fiery, more sullen than irate.

Obama’s real targets were the American public and his own Party. His job with the former was to reassure and re-inspire some of the desire for change that swept him into office. Current polls show a majority still favor reform yet disapprove of Obama’s handling of the matter. This disconnect is complicated further by the public’s competing fears that Obama’s proposals go too far yet opposition to them will keep anything from getting done.

Within his Party, Obama had to convince Blue Dog House members and moderate Senators that the costs of doing nothing, both economically and politically, outweigh the $900 billion cost of progressive reforms. Moreover, he needed to tell liberals that while he sympathizes with their aims, he needs them to sit down and shut up a little more. As he did the latter, Nancy Pelosi beamed behind him and nodded so vigorously that it was a toss-up whether her face would crack before or after her heart.

If Obama is successful and Congress passes some version of healthcare reform before year’s end, it will unquestionably be less than what progressives once aspired but I suspect it will also be more than what many conservatives who have already written off reform as dead on arrival expect as possible. Whatever passes will also be rammed through Congress, as its true costs and cost savings will never be sufficiently clear to anyone’s satisfaction.

Last night’s speech was only the start of that fight but Obama made clear his own role and it is not that of the irresistible force but rather the immovable object. Foremost, Obama stubbornly maintains that writing legislation should be the duty of the Legislative Branch of government. As much as this has come back to bite him several times already, I cannot help but hope that both he and future Presidents continue adhering to this principle.

Obama wants to provide leadership on this issue as well as countless others in the future. The question is whether he can do so and how he will go about it. As the New York Times wrote this morning, “It is one thing to create and surf a political movement . . . It is quite another to lead an uneasy country and a politically divided Congress toward tough decisions that create winners and losers.”

Whether he can do so remains unanswered but, last night, Obama defined the how. Rather than leading bloody charges in Congress, Obama chooses to stand as the still point in the center of the mêlée, the fulcrum against which competing viewpoints can throw themselves until achieving balance.

This approach rests on two fundamental beliefs held by Obama. The first is that momentum for healthcare reform has reached a critical mass, such that it is unstoppable. The second is his ability to bear the pressures this momentum/mass will place upon him without breaking.

We already know from his campaign and speeches that Obama is a believer. The crucial test of his Presidency is whether he has the depth of stillness within himself to govern from that belief.

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