Obama Wins Health Care Political Theater: Now What?

by Randy Shaw on February 25, 2010

It’s a safe bet that President Obama will run intellectual circles around Congressional Republicans at today’s televised health care forum, as nobody does political theater better than Barack Obama. From his acclaimed speech on race in early 2008, to his stirring nomination acceptance address at Denver’s Invesco Field at Mile High, to his inauguration, two health care speeches, and recent “question time” with House Republicans, Barack Obama knows how to seize the national stage and to out-debate opponents. Unfortunately, Obama’s unsurpassed skills at political theater have not translated into understanding how to get things done in Washington DC. Democrats will exult over Obama’s “victory” over Republicans today, but the President still must show he has the political skill to pass meaningful health care reform.

Since 2008, Barack Obama has held a number of nationally televised events that invariably leave the public more impressed than ever at his intellect, coolness, debating skills, and overall quality as a President. Yet in each case since becoming President, Obama has failed to use these successful events as a springboard to a breakthrough on health care reform.

Much as I would like to believe that this time will be different, recent evidence gives little grounds for optimism.

White House Confusion

Starting last week, a new story line about health care reform appeared. The story was that the public option proposal had risen from the dead, that the White House would back a public option if it had the votes, and grassroots activists were aggressively moving to secure the 50 Senate votes needed.

There had not been such optimism since Joe Lieberman killed real health care reform, and it seemed that the Democrats had found a way to re-energize their base.

Obama’s announcement on Monday of a “consensus” proposal that failed to include a public option dimmed hopes for some, but most saw it as a smart public relations move for the President to avoid submitting a provision that Republicans would clearly not support. After all, that would conflict with the spirit of Obama’s “bipartisanship.”

But as all too often proved the case, actions that are initially defended as part of a brilliant White House strategy turn out to be substantive, and not simply strategic.

In this case, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced on Tuesday that the Senate did not have the 50 votes needed for the public option, sending a message that the President was not willing to spend any political capital on the measure.

Activists working day and night to get the 50 votes did not abandon their efforts, but Gibbs’ comment certainly made it easier for wavering Democrats to justify not signing on to the public option letter.

Obama’s Latest “Victory”

So after President Obama today “exposes” the not exactly secret fact that Republicans have no plan to insure more than three million more uninsured Americans, then what?

The short answer is that many Democrats will continue to be satisfied with Obama debate victories, rather than concrete accomplishments. The President will then take this renewed good will and … well, that’s the problem.

Unlike Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama does not know how to close a political deal. And his on-the-job presidential experience has not brought much improvement.

Obama keeps thinking that public exposure of GOP foolishness will help Democratic majorities cobble together the right combination of votes, despite experience showing time and again that there is no connection between the two.

If Pelosi had the power to cut the final deal, we would have had a health care bill with a public option last fall. But Obama holds the cards, and he seems incapable of effectively negotiating with politicians accustomed to dealing from the bottom of the deck.

Harry Reid says health care reform will pass within sixty days. But unless Obama experiences a political epiphany, it will not be a bill that the base is excited about, or that will put Republicans on the defensive in November.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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