This is big, what’s happening. President Obama appears to have misstepped on a major initiative and defining issue. He has misjudged the nation’s mood, which itself is news: He rose from nothing to everything with the help of his fine-tuned antennae. Resistance to the Democratic health-care plans is in the air, showing up more now on YouTube than in the polls, but it will be in the polls soon enough. The president, in short, may be facing a real loss. This will be interesting in a number of ways and for a number of reasons, among them that we’ve never seen him publicly defeated before, because he hasn’t been. So we may be entering new territory, with new struggles shaped by new dynamics.
His news conference the other night was bad. He was filibustery and spinny and gave long and largely unfollowable answers that seemed aimed at limiting the number of questions asked and running out the clock. You don’t do that when you’re fully confident. Far more seriously, he didn’t seem to be telling the truth. We need to create a new national health-care program in order to cut down on government spending? Who would believe that? Would anybody?
The common wisdom the past week has been that whatever challenges health care faces, the president will at least get something because he has a Democratic House and Senate and they’re not going to let their guy die. He’ll get this or that, maybe not a new nationalized system but some things, and he’ll be able to declare some degree of victory.
And this makes sense. But after the news conference, I found myself wondering if he’d get anything.
I think the plan is being slowed and may well be stopped not by ideology, or even by philosophy in a strict sense, but by simple American common sense. I suspect voters, the past few weeks, have been giving themselves an internal Q-and-A that goes something like this:
Will whatever health care bill is produced by Congress increase the deficit? “Of course.” Will it mean tax increases? “Of course.” Will it mean new fees of fines? “Probably.” Can I afford it right now? “No, I’m already getting clobbered.” Will it make the marketplace freer and better? “Probably not.” Is our health care system in crisis? “Yeah, it has been for years.” Is it the most pressing crisis right now? “No, the economy is.” Will a health-care bill improve the economy? “I doubt it.”
The White House misread the national mood. The problem isn’t that they didn’t “bend the curve,” or didn’t sell it right. The problem is that the national mood has changed since the president was elected. Back then the mood was “change is for the good.” But that altered as the full implications of the financial crash seeped in. The crash gave everyone a diminished sense of their own margin for error. It gave them a diminished sense of their country’s margin for error. Americans are not in a chance-taking mood. They’re not in a spending mood, not after the unprecedented spending of the past year, from the end of the Bush era through the first six months of Obama. Here the Congressional Budget Office report that a health care bill would not save money but would instead cost more than a trillion dollars in the next decade was decisive. People say bureaucrats never do anything. The bureaucrats of CBO might have killed health care.
The final bill, with all its complexities, will probably be huge, a thousand pages or so. Americans don’t fear the devil’s in the details, they fear hell is. Do they want the same people running health care who gave us the Department of Motor Vehicles, the post office and the invasion of Iraq?
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Let me throw forward three other things that I suspect lessen , or will lessen, support for full health-care reform, two of them not quantifiable.
The first has to do with the doctors throughout the country who give patients a break, who quietly underbill someone they know is in trouble, or don’t charge for their services. Also the emergency rooms that provide excellent service for the uninsured in medical crisis. People don’t talk about this much because they’re afraid if they do they’ll lose it, that some government genius will come along and make it illegal for a doctor not to charge or a hospital to fudge around, with mercy, in its billing. People are afraid of losing the parts of the system that sometimes work—the unquantifiable parts, the human parts.
Second, and this is big, some of the bills being worked on in Congress will allow for or mandate taxpayer funding of abortion. Speaking only and narrowly in political terms, this is so ignorant as to be astounding. A good portion of the support for national health care comes from a sort of European Christian Democrat spirit of community, of “We are all in this together.” This spirit potentially unites Democrats, leftists, some Republicans and GOP populists, the politically unaffiliated and those of whatever view with low incomes. But putting abortion in the mix takes the Christian out of Christian Democrat. It breaks and jangles the coalition, telling those who believe abortion is evil that they not only have to accept its legality but now have to pay for it in a brand new plan, for which they’ll be more highly taxed. This is taking a knife to your own supporters.
The third point is largely unspoken but I suspect gives some people real pause. We are living in a time in which educated people who are at the top of American life feel they have the right to make very public criticisms of . . . let’s call it the private, pleasurable but health-related choices of others. They shame smokers and the overweight. Drinking will be next. Mr. Obama’s own choice for surgeon general has come under criticism as too heavy.
Only a generation ago such criticisms would have been considered rude and unacceptable. But they are part of the ugly, chafing price of having the government in something: Suddenly it can make big and very personal demands on you. Those who live in a way that isn’t sufficiently healthy “cost us money” and “drive up premiums.” Mr. Obama himself said something like it in his press conference, when he spoke of a person who might not buy health insurance. If he gets hit by a bus, “the rest of us have to pay for it.”
Under a national health-care plan we might be hearing that a lot. You don’t exercise, you smoke, you drink, you eat too much, and “the rest of us have to pay for it.”
It is a new opportunity for new class professionals (an old phrase that should make a comeback) to shame others, which appears to be one of their hobbies. (It may even be one of their addictions. Let’s stage an intervention.) Every time I hear Kathleen Sebelius talk about “transitioning” from “treating disease” to “preventing disease,” I start thinking of how they’ll use this as an excuse to judge, shame and intrude.
So this might be an unarticulated public fear: When everyone pays for the same health-care system, the overseers will feel more and more a right to tell you how to live, which simple joys are allowed and which are not.
Americans in the most personal, daily ways feel they are less free than they used to be. And they are right, they are less free.
Who wants more of that?