Looking back, this must have been the White House health-care strategy:
Health care as a subject is extraordinarily sticky, messy and confusing. It’s inherently complicated, and it’s personal. There are land mines all over the place. Don’t make the mistake the Clintons made and create a plan that gets picked apart, shot down, and injures the standing of the president. Instead, push it off on Congress. Let them come up with a dozen plans. It will keep them busy. It will convince them yet again of their importance and autonomy. It will allow them to vent, and perhaps even exhaust, their animal spirits. Various items and elements within each bill will get picked off by the public. Fine, that’s to be expected. The bills may in fact yield a target-rich environment. Fine again. Maybe health care’s foes will get lost in the din and run out of ammo. Maybe they’ll exhaust their animal spirits, too.
Summer will pass, the fight confined to the public versus Congress. And at the end, in the fall, the beauty part: The president swoops in and saves the day, forcing together an ultimate and more moderate plan that doesn’t contain the more controversial elements but does constitute a successful first step toward universal health care.
That’s not what happened.
It all got hotter, quicker than the White House expected. The many plans of Congress congealed in the public mind into one plan, and the one plan became a poison pool. The president is now immersed in it.
Here’s another thing that didn’t work. (I write as if health-care reform or insurance reform or whatever it’s called this week is already a loss, a historic botch, because it is. Even if the White House wins, they lose, because the cost in terms of public trust and faith was too high.)
Every big idea that works is marked by simplicity, by clarity. You can understand it when you hear it, and you can explain it to people. Social Security: Retired workers receive a public pension to help them through old age. Medicare: People over 65 can receive taxpayer-funded health care. Welfare: If you have no money and cannot support yourself, we will help as you get back on your feet.
These things are clear. I understand them. You understand them. The president’s health-care plan is not clear, and I mean that not only in the sense of “he hasn’t told us his plan.” I mean it in terms of the voodoo phrases, this gobbledygook, this secret language of government that no one understands—”single payer,” “public option,” “insurance marketplace exchange.” No one understands what this stuff means, nobody normal.
And when normal people don’t know what the words mean, they don’t say to themselves, “I may not understand, but my trusty government surely does, and will treat me and mine with respect.” They think, “I can’t get what these people are talking about. They must be trying to get one past me. So I’ll vote no.”
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In a more beautiful world, the whole health-care chapter could become, for the president, that helpful thing, the teachable moment. The president the past month has been taught a lot by the American people. It’s all there in the polls. He could still step back, rethink, say it didn’t work, promise to return with something better.
When presidents make clear, with modesty and even some chagrin, that they have made a mistake but that they’ve learned a lesson and won’t be making it again, the American people tend to respond with sympathy. It is our tradition and our impulse.
Such admissions are not a sign of weakness. John F. Kennedy knew this after the Bay of Pigs. He didn’t blame his Republican predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, or the agencies that had begun the invasion’s tentative planning under Ike. JFK made it clear he’d learned a great deal, which increased confidence in his leadership. His personal popularity rose so high that he later wryly noted that the more mistakes he made, the more popular he became.
I suspect the American people would appreciate seeing Barack Obama learn from this, and keep going. He’s their president. He will be for the next few difficult years, which will no doubt contain moments he will have to lead us through. They also probably wouldn’t mind seeing a wry, modest, very human and self-critical stance from a new president who doesn’t strut and doesn’t swagger but does have a level of 1950s cool, Old Vegas cool, of supreme and confident smoothness that one wouldn’t mind seeing ruffled a bit by that old ruffler, reality. Critics of George W. Bush will say here, “Did he ever show wry self-criticism?” No, he didn’t. And that’s why it ended so well for him.
Modern presidents are always afraid to show anything so human as modesty or doubt. They’re afraid of the endless cable-news loop of “I think I was wrong, I think I misjudged, I didn’t get it right.” They’re afraid of death by soundbite. Which is understandable. But they should get over it, especially when it comes to a bit of self-criticism, and even a bit of self-doubt. Modesty is one of the prevailing moods of the moment, it’s part of where the American people are and have been since at least a year ago when the economy tanked. We all lived through the abundance, made good investments and bad, made mistakes of judgment, and are wondering about the past decade, and its mistakes, and our part in its mistakes.
It shouldn’t become a wallow, but there’s nothing wrong with self-reflection and trying to learn from everything we did that was wrong, and right. It wouldn’t be so bad to see a president echo this.
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A final factor contributed to the mess of the health-care debate, and that the White House might ponder it. Looking back, what a lucky man President Clinton was to have—to help bring about after his own health-care fiasco—a Congress controlled by the opposite party. What a great and historic team Mr. Clinton and Newt Gingrich were, a popular Democratic president and a determined GOP leader with a solid majority. Welfare reform, a balanced budget, and a sense the public could have that not much crazy would happen and some serious progress might be made. If Mr. Clinton pressed too hard, Mr. Gingrich would push back. If Mr. Gingrich pressed too hard Mr. Clinton pushed back. Two gifted, often perplexing and always controversial Boomers who didn’t even like each other, and yet you look back now and realize: Good things happened there.
Right now Mr. Obama’s gift is his curse, a Congress dominated by his party. While the country worries about the economy and two wars, the Democrats of Congress are preoccupied with the idea that this is their moment, now is their time, health care now, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” the only blazingly memorable phrase to be uttered in the new era.
It’s not especially pleasurable to see history held hostage to ideological vanity, but it’s not the first time. And if they keep it up, they’ll help solve the president’s problem. He’ll have a Republican congress soon enough.