September 15, 2009

September 15, 2009 | Commentary on Health Care

Obama Buys Time

President Obama had a national audience Wednesday night, but his key message was tightly focused -- to buy time with his fellow Democrats who hold seats in Congress.

He's had at least temporary success because none of them publicly jumped ship after the speech and virtually all expressed willingness to explore what Obama proposed.

At least a key Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), was quoted as expressing disappointment: "I would have preferred that the [public option] issue were taken off the table as I have urged the president."

Nevertheless, liberals were giddy and Blue Dog Democrats stressed commonality but not disagreement. That served Obama's purpose of focusing on those he needs the most.

Congressmen and Senators have direct votes to decide the fate of national health care; the rest of us do not. A majority of Americans told pollsters before the speech that they oppose Obama's plan -- but so what? We will be stuck with whatever Congress passes. A bad bill could not be reversed even if incumbents are voted out next year and the majority changes hands. Because Obama is in office until 2013, he can veto any repeal efforts.

Obama's most immediate need was a dramatic effort to prevent public desertions by members of his own party. Freezing them for now gives the administration and Congressional leaders time to twist arms and buy votes however they can, including promises of ample re-election support. From a White House perspective, if they can win a short-term fight on Capitol Hill this fall, there remains plenty of time to regroup for the 2010 elections. That's 14 months from now -- a lifetime in politics.

Town hall and tea party protests are recent phenomena; Obama's team is willing to bet that their impact will fade or can be overcome.

So how did Obama fare among his target audience -- the nervous and disaffected among the Democrats? They held ranks and most said little that reflected the impact of dynamic town halls in August. Just before the speech, Blue Dog Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) mentioned concerned constituents as a reason why he would not support a bill with any "public option" health care plan. But after the speech he was quiet.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), said he would "keep my eyes trained on the nitty gritty details as the debate moves forward."

The "official" Blue Dog statement from Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) emphasized that they "share the President's commitment to passing health care reform this year."

One Blue Dog changed his bark from what he said before the speech and what he said afterwards. Rep. Colin Peterson (D-Minn.) had told public radio that morning, "I read the bill, and there are just things in there I think are problematic." After the speech, Peterson put it differently, "Good speech. If they could actually get a bill out that looks like that, it could be something I could get behind, but it depends on the details."

Another Blue Dog who opposed the bill in committee, Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), overlooked that vote and said President Obama, "did exactly what he needed to do." He noted with favor Obama's claim that he would not sign any bill that increases the deficit, which Altmire said has been his primary concern with the legislation.

Ditto for Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.), who praised the deficit pledge and said, "He clearly gave a great speech. Not just in delivery, but in substance. He said all the things a president needs to say to build consensus. Now it's up to Congress to do what we need to do."

Likewise, it was the money, not big government, that was the emphasis for Rep. Marion Berry (D-A.R.), who commented, "We must have health insurance reform, but we must work to find a fiscally responsible solution that preserves what works."

"I think we have to do this, and I am just very pleased," said Iowa Blue Dog Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa).

About the only Democrat to stick a finger in the President's eye was Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), who made it clear: "After tonight's address, I remain opposed to a public option as well as tax increases on small businesses. . . . I believe that bipartisanship requires not only listening to input, but also incorporating ideas of those with opposing viewpoints."

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), continued his months-long gradual move in Obama's direction, noting, "If the details live up to the quality of the speech, then it's a good plan."

Truly on the spot, though, is Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), who next year is challenging a foe of Obama's plan, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). Melancon did a political straddle after the speech: "There is a lot of common ground in this discussion, and we should build on that foundation. . . .That is a good beginning."

Whether he convinced the broad public or not, Obama needed to secure his political base and gin up fervor on the left.

What's next? Efforts to isolate nervous Congressmen from their constituents while amplifying the voices of the left.

During the August recess, Democrats had little choice but to listen to the voters. But now they're back in Washington where Congressional leaders and the White House dominate their time and attention. The schedule has already been extended, planning to keep Congress in session up until Christmas, with perhaps a week-long break at some point.

For as long as possible, Congress will be held in D.C. -- where voices from home are harder to hear.

Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ernest Istook Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First Appeared in Human Events