Barack Obama’s genius was to run a campaign that understood how muchAmericans wanted change. On Wednesday evening when he speaks to a jointsession of Congress President Obama will need to reclaim that genius.And he will need to reclaim the debate from those who would deny theurgency of real healthcare reform for the millions insured, underinsuredand uninsured.
Obama will be most persuasive if he speaks with passion about hisprinciples and priorities–and draws some lines in the sand. A keyline is support of a strong public option–not as a liberal litmus testbut as a critical part of expanding coverage, reining in costs anddisciplining rapacious insurance companies. He must explain in clear andsimple language that the alternative–a “trigger”–is a trap to killhealthcare reform; and that even if “trigger” conditions are met yearsfrom now, big insurance companies will start the fight all over again tostop the public option from going into effect. And by any reasonablemeasure conditions for triggering a public plan have already been metbecause insurance companies have failed to rein in costs and expandcoverage! As for those ballyhooed nonprofit coops, Obama should explainwhy they won’t have any real bargaining leverage to get lower pricesbecause they’ll be too small. Define the public plan for what it is:pragmatic, principled and all-American in how it privileges choice andcompetition.
Obama must invoke history. He should place himself squarely inthe tradition of those reform presidents–Roosevelt, Truman,Johnson–who labored hard for universal healthcare. Remind people thatthe Democrats are the party which brought them the two most populardomestic government programs–social security and Medicare–whichhave improved the condition of their lives in the 20th century. Tellpeople: “We brought you Medicare. They opposed it. Now we’re trying tofix the healthcare system. And–sound familiar? Once again, they areopposing it.”
Obama should also explain why bipartisanship ain’t what it used to be.This is a party out to cripple or kill reform, and with it the futuresuccess of Obama’s Presidency. As the eminent Roosevelt scholar JeanEdward Smith recently argued, “This fixation on securing bipartisansupport for healthcare reform suggests that the Democratic party hasforgotten how to govern and the White House has forgotten how to lead.”
The president should challenge the Blue Dogs. Place the burdenon them to get out of the way of the majority in favor of acomprehensive plan. The question isn’t whether the progressive majorityis unreasonably resisting reform to save the public option. The questionis whether a small minority of conservative Democrats will sabotagereform simply to stop the public option. Do the Blue Dogs wish tocripple their own President in his first year in office for seeking anobjective that has been the stated goal of their party since the Trumanadministration?
Obama must lead the charge and rally the people who swept himinto the White House. And challenge the Democrats. Make it clear to theDemocratic Caucus in general, and to the Blue Dogs in particular, thatfor the sake of the country they must vote for cloture so that a billthat will accomplish substantive reform can have an up-or-down vote onthe floor. Don’t heed those who counsel incrementalism or bipartisanshipat all cost. The art of the possible is not the same as the art ofincrementalism. And healthcare reform enacted by a Democratic majorityis still meaningful reform.
If President Obama can boldly lay out those principles and prioritiesthat inspired the movement which swept him into office, Americans willstand and fight with him to make the changes this nation so desperatelyneeds.