If Republicans point out that Obama's insurance horror stories apply to only 7 percent of the insurance market, the president and Democrats will use that to position their opponents as defenders of the insurance industry. It's a part of a longer-term strategy in which Obama and his allies will offer regulation to protect people from any corporate entity deemed dangerous. "Anything that forces Republicans to defend insurance companies, Wall Street, drug companies, etc., is a win for us," said one strategist involved in the 2010 races. It's a twist on Obama's oft-stated goal of bringing about change. With this strategy, he is not an agent of positive change, but a guardian against unwanted change.
Obama has two audiences Thursday. He needs to convince the public that reform is necessary and that Republicans don't have a plan. He also needs to convince House and Senate Democrats that they can win this argument in the public square. The central argument White House officials and their allies make to nervous Democrats is that the public has reacted negatively to the political process but not the underlying measures. Once a bill is passed, the public will react favorably to the substance of the new law. (By holding the summit, Obama hopes to replace Congress as the public face of reform. It's not the first time he's tried.)
Rather than making the debate a referendum on the messy congressional process, which aides the party out of power, Democrats want to make the debate about whether Republicans choose to stand with middle-class voters or with insurance companies. In recent weeks, Democrats have benefited by debate over the stimulus bill, as much of the GOP opposition has appeared political rather than principled. They hope to make the same case with health care.
In a time when analogies to the Clinton years seem to abound, some Democrats hope that on Thursday the president creates a tipping-point moment in which GOP obstructionism is so evident, it rivals the 1995 GOP government shutdown that wound up favoring Bill Clinton. (That's a stretch. No one is losing services in a way they can immediately recognize, as they did during the Gingrich shutdown. And there is no equivalent of Gingrich to get grumpy about being seated too far back on Air Force One.)
This will be a tough balancing act for Obama. He will have to be political without seeming to be if he wants to create the kind of comparison that puts Republicans on the defensive. He'll have to retain a bipartisan posture to show that he is not the liberal zealot of the GOP caricature. Yet he'll also have to draw bright partisan lines by pressing Republicans on their plans. This is a president, remember, who called for politicians to work together in his State of the Union address just days after campaigning against future Sen. Scott Brown by arguing that Brown was a captive of the insurance companies and banks.
Obama might seek the counsel of his White House ushers, who are highly skilled at managing White House functions. When they want to nudge guests toward the exit, doors start to shut and little velvet ropes start to appear. For guests who don't get the hint, the ushers smile pleasantly and nod. And then, if they must, they put a comforting hand on you to guide you to your destination. So the president must do Thursday: Be kind and hospitable to his guests while at the same time putting them into a corner.
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