President Obama is the opposite of Hamlet—he is desperately eager to do something on health care reform, right this minute, but he doesn’t particularly have any idea what it should be.
Obama spent most of July insisting that Congress had to pass a bill for him to sign before the August recess, in case they didn’t have enough political momentum by the time they got back. Privately, Congressional Democrats fumed that Obama was offering no details on his preferred plan and was simply telling his spokespeople to assure them he would not rule out anything they decided.
Just before the recess, Obama got on TV for a Wednesday night address to the nation to “explain” the “details” of his “plan.” The public’s reaction to his vague answers to reporters’ questions revealed as much frustration at his lack of specifics as Congress felt.
Since then, Obama has played “good cop, bad cop” with an unwilling Congress: Obama makes flowery promises—everyone who’s happy with the status quo can keep things as they are, everyone who’s unhappy can have everything completely different—while Congress is forced to work out the ugly details, like who’s going to pay for the plan.
At some point, Obama shifted away from his push for “health care reform” and began hinting that what he really wanted was “health insurance reform,” but he was too cowardly or indecisive to state his altered intention outright.
Obama similarly began to disavow the necessity of the public option when it became clear there were not enough votes in the Senate to pass a bill with one. Rather than declare his switch in tactics openly, Obama implied that this had been his position all along, when he had clearly and repeatedly stated in the past that a public option would be necessary in order for him to sign a bill. After the resulting backlash by House Democrats and Congressional leaders, Obama is once again on the fence about whether legislation must contain a public option or not.
Even New York Times columnists have been grumbling about Obama’s failure to make the case for health care reform.
As Bob Herbert complained, Obama “has been remarkably opaque about his intentions regarding health care. He left it up to Congress to draft a plan and he has not gotten behind any specific legislation. He has seemed to waffle on the public option and has not been at all clear about how the reform that is coming will rein in runaway costs. At times it has seemed as though any old ‘reform’ would be all right with him.”
It’s obvious why dishonest politicians would choose to keep details of unpopular and impractical legislation vague in the early stages—i.e., to keep people from figuring out that it won’t work, will cost too much money, or will give the government greater control over our lives. But at some point, leaders have to take a stand on what they will and will not tolerate, and let the chips fall where they may. At this point, Obama is acting as though he would be content to sign a phone book as long as the cover said “Health Care Reform Bill.”
Obama seems to think he can stay above the fray and maintain his popularity by not get involved in any messy details requiring those things we call “choices.”
But as Michael Barone notes, “The president must either insist on a ‘government option’ insurance plan or must let it be known that he will sign a bill without one… Sooner or later the old politician’s dodge… won’t wash.”
Obama’s return-from-August-recess televised address to the nation Wednesday night is supposed to make it clear where he stands on the details of the various plans offered by Congress, after several months of hands-off cheerleading on his part. But it’s obvious that things will be no clearer after his speech than before: his handlers are already scolding curious reporters for wanting to know specifics about what he’ll say and even whether the public will know where Obama stands on the public option after his address.
In a pre-speech interview today, Obama declared that “we do intend to get something done this year,” but hedged by saying that he was still “open to new ideas.” Open to new ideas? This is the same guy who demanded that Congress simply had to pass a comprehensive overhaul by the end of July?