The Adventures of President Barack von Munchausen
As you may know, there’s a psychiatric condition known as Münchausen syndrome by proxy, one of the manifestations of which can be loosely defined as putting someone or something else in jeopardy so that you can be a hero by "saving" it.
For obvious reasons, this came to mind as I watched a surprisingly reinvigorated Barack Obama give his speech to Congress on Wednesday night. As columnist E.J. Dionne wrote for the Washington Post:
After a listless summer during which his opponents dominated the health-care debate… it seemed as if a politician who had been channeling the detached and cerebral Adlai Stevenson had discovered a new role model in the fighting Harry Truman.
Then again (though I know I might be inviting sneering about "multi-dimensional chess" and the like), there may have been a method to the seeming madness of Obama’s lackadaisical summer attitude toward healthcare reform. A New York Times story a few days ago navel-gazed about how Obama has attempted to learn lessons from the failure of Bill Clinton’s healthcare proposals in 1994:
That 15-year-old lesson underscores how much the Clinton debacle has defined Mr. Obama’s drive for his domestic priority from the beginning, providing a tip sheet for what not to do. Even Mr. Obama’s decision to address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night to jumpstart his health initiative left some aides wary, given the inevitable parallels with Mr. Clinton’s September address 16 years ago to introduce his ill-fated plan.
I can point out a key difference just from the numbers in the quote above — Clinton’s speech was in September 1993; his reform bill died nearly a year later.
Obama quite likely concluded that the momentum from a single speech (particularly given the ever-shortening modern news cycle and attention spans) couldn’t possibly last an entire year. It could, however, trigger a short legislative sprint of two months or so.
Thus the now-obsolete insistence earlier this year on a health bill by August wasn’t really intended to get a bill by August; rather, it was intended to provoke enough movement that a bill by Thanksgiving would be in striking distance. (The declaration in the spring of an October 15 target date for invoking reconciliation is further evidence of this.)
All this, of course, leaves open the question — which, you might have noticed, is being pressed here almost hourly — of what kind of bill Obama hopes to pass with this last-minute rescue effort. To go out really far on an optimistic limb, think about the president’s especially Münchausen-like treatment of the public option, which has been not merely thrown under the bus but tied to railroad tracks, hung over the edge of cliffs, and subjected to every other imaginable sort of peril in news reports. And yet Obama continues to include it, at least nominally, in his proposed legislation.
Everyone who understands how important a public option is to successful healthcare reform feels terribly jerked around by now. But then, the
corporate-owned "centrist" types who have balked at a robust public option are probably feeling the same way about Obama’s refusal to officially kill it. Like the old story of the carrot and the stick tied to the donkey’s back, the public option’s demise seems eternally just a few inches away, but never arrives.
Perhaps Obama is just waiting for the very last second to throw it away as a bargaining chip. But if I were one of those
hacks centrists, I’d be very nervous about the resilient popular support for a public option tempting Obama to champion it in fall rallies, daring them to vote against it. As many other folks have observed, the momentum would be almost impossible for any politician, no matter how thoroughly bought off by the insurance companies, to resist.
Of course, that same possibility will make it all the more shameful if Obama really does surrender on the public option. But I’ve waited 15 years just to have hope again, so I’ll cling to it for a few weeks longer.