Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Showtime for Obama

“I very much hope and do expect Republicans will be onboard,” Sen. Max Baucus said to reporters today. “I don’t know how many, but if there are not any, I’m gonna move forward in any event.”

With that simple statement, Baucus, a member of the Senate Finance Committee charged with crafting a Senate version of the much-debated, hotly contested health-care bill, clearly endorsed the likely use of reconciliation — the procedure by which the Democrats, in the majority on Congress, may approve a health care bill without Republican support.

Baucus today threw down the gauntlet to the Republicans and set the stage for the second throwdown: President Obama’s address before a joint session of Congress tonight.

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The Republicans have fought long and bitterly against features of any legislation from either the House or the Senate, especially the public health option, which gives Americans a choice of private health insurance or a program underwritten by the federal government.

But a letter written by a ranking Republican senator to the president suggests that the GOP leadership is at least aware of the very real chance that reconciliation may really come to pass on a health care bill, a la Baucus’ statement.

Today Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch released a letter sent to President Obama, a sort of olive branch that, frankly, points to the Republicans attempting to negotiate from a position of weakness.

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“Our nation expects us to solve this challenge in an open, honest and bipartisan manner,” Hatch wrote. “I would urge you to take this historic opportunity to push for a responsible and incremental health-care reform plan that can gain significant support from both sides of the aisle. …”

“We have to be realistic about doing too much too fast.”

Encrusted in this gradualist approach to a longstanding national issue is the root of the problem. Simply put, the U.S. health-care system can no longer effectively respond to slow-motion thinking. Even with a problem that’s literally generations old, there comes a time when a meaningful solution is possible, when years of intractability gives way to a clear, inescapable opportunity to do something productive.

The Obama administration, no doubt able to grasp the entreaty in Hatch’s letter, recognizes the fierce urgency of this now vis-à-vis health care. With this, the best chance in decades to effect real change in a broken system, there’s every reason to believe Obama won’t look back.

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The sticking point for the president is the public option. He campaigned on it last year; he announced his intention to pursue it this year. Now, as campaigning has given way to the compromise that makes our democracy possible, Obama has faced incredible opposition from conservatives and some in his own party. It’s caught the attention of at least one Republican senator who’s artfully trying to walk the tightrope between reflexive partisanship and satisfying the proven demands of the American people.

Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe said today that, Baucus’ line in the sand notwithstanding, she still hoped for a bipartisan bill. “We’re really working toward, and committed to, a bipartisan agreement,” told MSNBC. “I can’t speak for my other colleagues, but I’m certainly committed to it.”

Snowe said she’d urged President Obama to omit any mention of the public option in his speech tonight, the better to “provide momentum of a different kind.” And Snowe apparently detects a willingness to keep an open mind. “I think he’s going to be very flexible, and I have discerned that in my previous conversations as well,” Snowe told MSNBC. “… [H]e’s indicated a practicality and a pragmatism, and he recognizes that those are essential …

“Hopefully, he’ll demonstrate that tonight.”

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Snowe’s comments are not quite code for imploring the president to avoid any partisan reflexes in his speech tonight, to stick with the facts and stay away from any incitement to political rhetoric. That would seem to satisfy those who say Obama hasn’t connected with the public on the issue. But in communicating health-care reform and what it means to Americans, Obama’s faced a challenge not of his own making, one that deserves a nuanced response.

There’s no question that the president will need to bring his A game tonight; his formidable gifts as an incisive, evocative orator may never be more necessary than tonight.

But much of Obama’s failure to communicate hasn’t been a failure to deliver his message, it’s an inability (or an incomplete ability) to counter the barrage of farcical messages from various extremist fishheads in the conservative media and on Capitol Hill.

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For months now, Sarah Palin, John McCain, Chuck Grassley, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and others have lied about and distorted the public option, cultivating the fiction of the United States as über-health care provider, the ultimate Blue Cross, a multi-tentacled operation given to Gestapo-like actions with black Escalades pulling up in American driveways, and families across the country visited by men wearing earphones and sunglasses eager to discuss a timetable for pulling the plug on Grandma’s respirator.

That’s why Obama will need to make some oratorical reach beyond the hard numbers in the debate. So much of the debate has been poisoned by extremist fear and ideology; they can’t be neutralized by a recitation of numbers from the Congressional Budget Office. There has to be a call to reason, an appeal to sanity, an opportunity to say “Enough.” A joint session of Congress is the best, highest platform from which to make his case.

The train on health care reform is getting ready to leave the station. After President Obama effectively shouts “all aboard!” tonight, the American people (a large percentage of whom support some changes in the health-care system) will be watching to see who gets on the train. And who doesn’t.
Image credits: The health-care bill: Brown Man Thinking Hard. Hatch, Snowe: Public domain.

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