Change or Bust: In Prime Time, Obama Makes Things Stark

Near the top of his latest prime-time news conference, President Obama acknowledged that “Congress is still working through a few key issues” as it seeks to produce a unified health care plan.

That meant that there wasn’t any specific proposal for Obama to point to and rally support for. We still don’t know how whatever plan emerges will fund expanded access and we still don’t know whether it will include a public option—and Obama shed little light on either issue on Wednesday night.

It's also not clear that a press conference was the most effective means of conveying the message directly. The format introduced all sorts of extraneous questions and issues. A simple 10-minute address from the Oval Office would have let him make a crisp, clear and highly focused statement that would have filtered everything else out.

But maybe that doesn’t matter. He called the press conference with a simple objective in mind: to reframe the health care debate for average Americans in broad, understandable terms. On one side, Obama declared, is reform in whatever form it finally takes when House and Senate Democrats (and maybe a few Republicans) reach a consensus; on the other side—the side of inaction, the Republican side—is nothing but more of the same.

And he tried to make clear what more of the same would mean.

“If somebody told you there’s a plan out there that would double your own health care costs over the next 10 years, that’s guaranteed to result in more Americans losing their health care, and that is by far the biggest contributor to our federal deficit—I think most people would be opposed to that,” Obama said. “Well, that’s the status quo. That’s what we have right now.”

The need for such a message is obvious. Democrats have long enjoyed a significant polling advantage over Republicans on the issue of health care, a disparity that was very much evident when Obama ran against John McCain last fall. Health care, even Republicans will admit, is generally a Democratic issue—except, it seems, when a Democrat actually makes it to the White House and proposes meaningful action on the issue. Then people get uneasy.

It happened 15 years ago, when Bill Clinton came to town with what seemed like a popular mandate for wholesale reform. He deputized his wife to draft a plan, he presented it to Congress, and then watched in horror as Republicans demagogued it to death. We should do something about health care, the G.O.P. said, but not this. Support for the plan unraveled, the G.O.P. won control of Congress (while boasting of killing health care), and reform was dead.

Until now. Like Clinton, Obama took office with a pledge to overhaul health care. If anything, his mandate was stronger—a bigger share of the vote and 15 years of mounting costs and growing public frustration with the system. But the last few weeks have brought haunting parallels to the ’94 debacle, with the G.O.P. warning of “socialized medicine” and the costs of a “government takeover” of health care. Like Clinton before him, Obama has seen his natural polling advantage on health care evaporate before his eyes.  

As Obama noted on Wednesday night, in Washington “the default position is inertia.” What he didn’t say (but what he nonetheless confirmed by scheduling the press conference in the first place) is that inertia has been winning lately.

And so Obama sought to reclaim his (and his party’s) natural advantage on health care; to take voters’ minds off the confusing and ever-shifting details of the Congressional negotiations and to return the conversation to a more basic and fundamental level, where the dividing line between the two parties is clearest and where, as a result, Democrats do best.

He took advantage of the tools that Republicans have given him, playing up Senator Jim DeMint’s comment last week that the G.O.P. can “break” the president by derailing health care and Bill Kristol’s advice that Republicans “go for the kill” on the issue. It also helps Obama that Republicans have never offered a detailed health care plan of their own. This allows the president to present Americans with a stark choice: If you fall for their scare tactics, all you’re going to get is more of what you’ve been getting.

You might say that Obama was stealing a page from Ronald Reagan, who faced a similar moment at this same stage of his presidency. Twenty-eight years ago, nearly to the day, Reagan took to the prime-time airwaves to rally support for the make-or-break item on his first-year agenda, a massive $750 billion tax cut plan. It was facing a critical vote in the House, and it wasn’t clear the votes were there; months of Democratic attacks had produced the same kind of inertia with which Obama is now grappling.

The Congressional debate had been confusing to the Americans, with all sorts of conflicting numbers and calculations flying around—confusion that only helped the opposition. Reagan used his address to make the choice clear to the public, telling a (possibly true) story about a congressman who had just tried to discuss the details of the tax-cut debate with a constituent only to be told by the constituent, “Don’t give me an essay. What I want to know is, are you for them or against them?”

Two days later, 48 conservative Democrats defied their party and sided with Reagan, and his tax cuts were on their way to enactment. Inertia had been overcome.

Obama now wants Americans asking their congressmen and senators the same basic question about health care reform: Are you for it or are you against it? If the debate is on those terms—between doing something and doing nothing—he just might enjoy the same result Reagan did.

Change or Bust: In Prime Time, Obama Makes Things Stark