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Late Night: How Not to be Seen

It might have taken the president over half an hour to get around to pushing health care insurance reform in his first State of the Union address, but it took a senator from his own party less than half a day to push it right back:

Landrieu takes swipe at Obama over health care

(CNN) – President Obama is taking heat from a Senate Democrat over how he dealt with the issue of health care in his first State of the Union speech.

“I think the president should have been more clear about a way forward on health care last night,” Sen. Mary Landrieu told reporters on Capitol Hill Thursday. “I’m hoping in the next week or two he will be, because that’s what it’s going to take if it’s at all possible to get this done.”

“Mailing in general suggestions, sending them over the transom is not necessarily going to work,” the Louisiana Democrat added.

Setting aside the “Democrats in disarray” trope that establishment scribes have been pushing since Will Rodgers wore short pants—and acknowledging that Mary Landrieu has been less than helpful for most of this effort—I’m going to take the Senator’s statement at face value and say, “You know what? I agree.”

President Obama used about six minutes of his speech to once again paint in broad strokes why there is a need for serious reform, but beyond referring to “the plan we’ve proposed” (and which plan is that, anyway?), he did not detail what “serious reform” now—after a year of wrangling—means. Beyond saying, “Do not walk away from reform. Not now. . . . Let’s get it done. Let’s get it done,” Obama did not give Congress any direction on what, where, or how to move forward.

This is not news, I suppose. The White House has spent this last year insulating the president from the grit and grime of the health reform battle, thinking that if Obama stayed above the fray, he would be seen as more presidential—or at least would retain that “new car smell” and those lofty approval numbers.

Of course, that did not turn out to be the result of this rose-garden strategy. Matters were not helped by the fact that Rahm Emanuel and the administration’s political team didn’t even make it to the White House rose garden, opting instead for behind-closed-doors negotiations, and cold-hard-cash political deals cut with relevant industry and union leaders. Rather than looking presidential, Obama was, at best, invisible. And, as America soured on the drawn-out process of getting to “yes” on the president’s signature issue, they naturally soured on the president—and his party—as well.

Now, midterms are on the horizon, and the writing is on the wall. Congressional Democrats are tired of carrying water for the White House, and Representatives are feeling especially soaked. The House sent up a bill, only to see it—and any possibility that their bill might be part of a negotiation with the Senate—disappear, first into the black hole of Connecticut, and then under fallout of an electoral A-bomb a few miles north. The Representatives had put it out there for the president, more or less, and the president left it flapping in the breeze.

So, it is not really a surprise to see a myriad of stories about the lack of urgency felt by Congressional Democrats. Health care reform, right now, symbolizes dithering and dysfunction; after a year of being in what most Americans see as complete control of the Federal Government, Democrats are looking for issues that will provide immediate, tangible benefits for their constituencies. It is not so much that health reform no longer floats, but it is not smooth sailing, and it is without a good tail wind—and the destination is not at all clear.

It doesn’t help Democrats—or Obama’s standing with them—that Rahm is also leaking left and right that maybe health reform is no longer a top priority. Instead, it only underscores for those in Congress, and for voters everywhere, that Rahm’s boss talks pretty, but has no interest in showing anyone his stick.

Thus, it is not unexpected to hear Senator Landrieu asking for a little more visibility on the part of Obama. Her “swipe” could be part of her ConservaDem strategy, but it could easily be seen as an embattled Senator saying “Time to put your neck out there, Mr. President. We legislators have been taking hits for you since last summer. Stop pretending it is our fault that you don’t have a bill. Sack up and get dirty.”

The House is in election-year mode, the Senate has already cashed their health-sector donations, and Rahm thinks if you withdraw from a fight at the 11th hour, then it doesn’t count as a loss. But American voters have a different view; they voted for a president who promised to get involved. If you want to lead, and want to be looked at as a leader, then you have to put yourself out there. If you want health care reform—really want it—Mr. President, stand up, risk some capital, stake your claim, show your flag. . . be seen. Let’s get it done.

Let’s get it done.

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Gregg Levine

Gregg Levine

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