by Ken Feltman
“Sometimes academics get in the way of football at Ohio State.”
– John Cooper, head coach of the Ohio State University football team, 1988-2000.
As I listened recently to two Obama administration officials discuss the necessity of passing healthcare reform to President Obama’s legacy, I was struck with the Ahab-like obsession of so many White House and Congressional aides. A healthcare reform bill has become their Moby Dick. Passing reform has become an end in itself, pursued despite the ever-increasing illogic of the House and Senate bills. A year ago, one of these officials told me that Obama wanted to focus on “legacy issues” and avoid getting bogged down in “quicksand causes.”
Sometimes ambition gets in the way of good public policy in Washington. A football coach who loses a player to academic ineligibility may see classwork as a distraction. An administration bent on compiling the most impressive record in a century can lose sight of the details of the legislation that is intended to build the great legacy. Sometimes a legacy issue can turn to quicksand.
The Democrats are working to pass a healthcare bill that becomes less popular by the day. The Republicans are trying to block it. Have they stepped back to ask why? Why would the Democrats in the House and Senate want to pass a bill that will harm their reelection chances? Why would Republicans want to stop a bill that seems destined to be a millstone around the necks of Democratic candidates? Why would they rush to enact a bill with conflicting and inoperable provisions, loaded with passages that look like earmarks and pork?
Still, the Stepford leaders of the Congressional Democrats keep twisting arms and making deals, all in the hopes of getting the final few votes to push healthcare reform to the next step. The White House has used threats and sweeteners to coax votes out of reluctant Democrats. Has the president staked so much on passage of a healthcare bill that his staff believes that he must sign a bill or his presidency will be irreparably damaged? Obama cannot back off: Healthcare reform is essential to his legacy. Without it, he will appear weak and incapable of persuading Congress to act.
Creating a legacy amidst the distraction of unfinished business
Is it possible that this White House is so haunted by dreams of the Obama legacy that key officials are at this moment less interested in an exit strategy in Afghanistan or Iraq than one on healthcare reform? The desired healthcare exit is to get a bill, almost any bill, and put it in front of the president for signing before dozens of TV cameras.
This was not supposed to happen. Healthcare was expected to make Obama lots of political points and create a new entitlement that would be a cornerstone of Obama’s legacy, equaling the legacy of President Franklin Roosevelt. That is why Obama speaks so frequently of the presidents before him who tried and failed at healthcare reform.
This is happening because Obama came into office planning his legacy before he had encountered his first unanticipated crisis. Therefore, when he is frustrated by an issue that distracts him from pursuing his legacy issues, he reacts like the football coach who lost a key player to poor grades: He blames the teachers. He blames the previous administration for leaving behind messy unfinished business. Blaming others is not the mark of a leader. How could people as bright as the president and his advisors fail to understand that?
Congressional Democrats and Obama are headed toward a healthcare reform success wrapped in political disaster if they pass anything close to the current House and Senate versions of reform. Former President Bush used the term “catastrophic success” when he acknowledged that the initial reports of victory in Iraq did not take into account the subsequent stalemate and bloodshed that overwhelmed the initial appearance of success. Is that what Obama and the Democrats are busy creating with healthcare?
Defeat of healthcare could help Democrats
Perversely, defeat of healthcare legislation could be good news for Democrats in the short term, despite the damage it might do to Obama’s legacy. Defeat of healthcare reform is more likely to hurt nay-saying Republicans in the next few elections.
Today, a clear majority of Americans believe that if reform passes, their healthcare costs will rise, their own care will deteriorate and the federal deficit will get worse. But the White House pushes ahead, certain that Obama must get this bill passed or his legacy will be doomed even before he completes his first year in office.
Do the Democrats think that this legislation will be so different from other one-party bills that have become law? Democrats will own this bill. They will be held accountable for any failures or problems in the reformed system. When insurance premiums increase (and they will), the Democrats will be blamed. When patients must wait for treatment, or are denied treatment, the Democrats will be blamed. Still, the Democrats push forward.
Many Democrats, including key people in the administration, blame Republican obstructionism and poor public relations for their difficulties in passing health reform. They say that the criticism has blurred the message, that the public has been misled and that the positive aspects of reform have been ignored.
Advocates of reform have spent millions on advertising and lobbying this year. Support for reform continues to drop, poll by poll. Obama’s speeches and public appearances on behalf of reform cannot stop the slide. Beside that, blaming Republicans reveals a Democratic weakness: The Democrats control the White House and both branches of Congress, with a decisive margin in the Senate. If they cannot move legislation, their whining will not cover up their ineptitude.
Healthcare is the wrong issue at this time
The problem is not Republican opposition. The problem is not that the public does not want healthcare reform. The public wants reform. The problem is that healthcare is the wrong issue at this time. The public wants jobs and the economy to be Washington’s primary focus. Still, Democrats are working into the late hours of the night on healthcare, not jobs. This obsession, stoked by Obama’s ego and liberal Democrats, has exhausted the patience of millions of Americans, who register their disenchantment with pollsters. The Obama White House remains adamant: Healthcare is a vital piece of Obama’s legacy.
Stung by criticism from voters, Democratic leaders now say that once the bill is sent to the president for signature, the public will embrace it and everything will change. That high-risk hope depends on an improving economy more than on post-passage approval of the healthcare bill. The public just wants to get healthcare off the table so jobs can get on the table.
Meantime, smug Republicans believe that they will benefit from public unhappiness with the time devoted to healthcare at the expense of jobs. Many Republican members of Congress fail to appreciate that most Americans want healthcare reform. If reform fails, the Democrats are certain to blame Republicans and voters may sour further on what looks like the do-nothing GOP. Reform was so close, Democrats will say, but the Republicans blocked it.
Republicans presented no alternatives even when research and their own constituents told them that most Americans wanted insurance reform rather than a total redesign of the way they receive care. For example, voters say they want reform of the insurance industry’s practice of retroactive cancellation of coverage, of denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, of insurance company gatekeepers who routinely deny procedures that physicians say are necessary, of illness-specific maximum reimbursements. Republicans gave swing voters no reform plan to rally around. Can you blame voters for believing that insurance company lobbyists and their campaign contributions to key Senators and House members blocked the basic reforms that voters wanted? Can you blame voters when they read about a bill full of bureaucratic language that does not address their basic problems but will limit treatment and increase costs? The voters are concluding that the whole effort was wasted. Jobs are still scarce.
Jobs creation has been pushed into the background all year by bickering over healthcare. Neither party is making jobs the primary priority. Added to that, Obama and the Democrats are pushing a huge government expansion into healthcare management while the voters keep telling researchers that they mistrust government tinkering in this most personal of services.
Swing voters see Obama as too cozy with Wall Street
Another part of the equation is the growing impression that Wall Street has not reformed and that the Obama administration has been lax in oversight of the major financial institutions that received bailout funds. Main Street has not enjoyed the largess and voters in small cities and towns are increasingly angry. Obama has not understood how closely his administration is tied in voters’ minds to Wall Street and the big banks. His strategy – blame Bush – no longer resonates. His strategy does nothing to explain to voters what he is doing to solve the problems of “middle America.”
Obama’s admitted focus on his legacy, far earlier than other recent presidents have become publicly preoccupied with their legacy, has caused him to instruct his aides to fight for a bill that people want, but not as much as they want jobs. Obama’s obsession has caused swing voters to doubt that Obama has the skills to manage a legislative program and respond to today’s needs today. Focus group participants are suggesting that Obama is more concerned about his image than about their problems. The swing voters are not questioning Obama’s vision, just his rigid and seemingly self-serving focus.
Political leadership involves taking an unpopular issue – such as civil rights – and building support for that issue, finally enacting legislation supportive of the issue. Obama began 2009 with an issue that enjoyed widespread public support and, slowly but surely, that support had been eroded.
That may be the lasting legacy of Obama’s first year in office.