No More Speeches!
On health reform, Obama needs to twist arms, not win hearts and minds.
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If President Obama wants to pass a health reform bill, he shouldn't be giving a speech to Congress tomorrow. In fact, he shouldn't be giving any more speeches, period. From now until whenever, any time he had scheduled for speeches on health care should instead be spent meeting privately with Democratic holdouts to explain how very difficult their lives will be if they don't vote yes.
Even on its own PR terms, a high-profile presidential address on health care is ill-advised because it invites the press to declare health reform dead based on nothing more than how eloquently Obama makes the same case for health reform that he's been making for six months. By the count of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, the Sept. 9 speech will be Obama's 28th on the topic of health care (not counting, the Journal says, "another 92 in which it figured prominently").
This is, Clive Crook explains in the Financial Times, "A Make or Break Speech for Obama." Michael Kranish, writing in the Boston Globe, calls it "a make-or-break address." Sheryl Gay Stolberg, writing in the New York Times, predicts this will be "a make-or-break week for health care." CBSNews.com says we are witnessing a "make-or-break moment." But wait. Wasn't August the "make-or-break month" for health reform? That's what Janet Adamy and Naftali Bendavid wrote at the end of July in the Wall Street Journal. Or maybe the make-or-break month was July, when Obama gave a press conference on the topic. That's what NPR said at the time. U.S. News declared it "make or break time" for health reform on June 2.
What the fight for health care reform needs isn't more fake public drama about how Obama handles the latest in an unending sequence of "make-or-break" moments. It's not even clear that health reform especially needs a shoring up of public support. Yes, the angry right fringe's disruptions of this summer's public meetings and Congress' failure to move more quickly on the issue drove Obama's approval rating down from 57 percent to 44 percent, according to the latest CNN poll. But these setbacks have only slightly dampened the public's appetite for health care reform. Forty-eight percent still favor "Barack Obama's plan to reform health care," down from 51 percent in June. The public option, which risks being dropped due to lack of public support, actually enjoys more support than health reform itself; 55 percent favor it.
Of course, in a recent CBS News poll, 60 percent said that Obama hadn't "clearly explained what his plans for health reform would mean." But that doesn't necessarily mean the public is baffled. In the CNN poll, 59 percent affirmed they did understand the proposals, up from 51 percent in June. To the extent public support for any health reform plan is down, it isn't just for the Democrats' plans. It's also for the Republicans' (such as they are). In the CBS News poll, 50 percent of respondents said Obama had better health reform ideas than the Republicans in Congress. That's down from 55 percent in July, but confidence in the Republicans' plans has dropped too, to 23 percent from 26 percent in July.
The constituency that Obama should be worrying about right now isn't the defining-moment-loving press or the Republican-wary public. It's the risk-averse Democratic Congress. He's already got enough Democratic votes to get health reform through the House with a public option. In the Senate, passing health reform with a public option will probably require splitting the bill in half, passing the uncontroversial parts (mostly regulations governing health insurers) with a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority and passing the controversial parts (taxes, the public option, Medicaid expansion, subsidies for the purchase of health insurance) under no-filibuster reconciliation rules. Although many fear this places the fate of health reform in the hands of unelected Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin, as I have explained, Vice President Joe Biden, as president of the Senate, is free to overrule Frumin.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.