Did Obama Give Up?

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JONATHAN CHAIT JANUARY 21, 2010

Did Obama Give Up?

Paul Krugman thinks so:

Progressives are desperately in need of leadership; more specifically, House Democrats need to be told to pass the Senate bill, which isn’t what they wanted but is vastly better than nothing. And what we get from the great progressive hope, the man who was offering hope and change, is this:

I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on. We know that we need insurance reform, that the health insurance companies are taking advantage of people. We know that we have to have some form of cost containment because if we don’t, then our budgets are going to blow up and we know that small businesses are going to need help so that they can provide health insurance to their families. Those are the core, some of the core elements of, to this bill. Now I think there’s some things in there that people don’t like and legitimately don’t like.

In short, “Run away, run away”!

Maybe House Democrats can pull this out, even with a gaping hole in White House leadership. Barney Frank seems to have thought better of his initial defeatism. But I have to say, I’m pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama, who seems determined to confirm every doubt I and others ever had about whether he was ready to fight for what his supporters believed in.

I certainly agree it was monumentally stupid for Obama to say that. The whole handling of the Massachusetts race -- seeing the danger in advance, coordinating a message after the loss, and holding together the party through the panic -- has been an utter debacle. On the other hand, if you read the whole interview, it's less clear that Obama is actually calling for piecemeal changes. Obama also says this:

Well, and if he's talking about healthcare, then I think what I'd say is, "Talk to all those people out there right now who have lost their healthcare during the course of this year because they've lost their jobs." Or all the small businesses have seen the premiums that they're paying going up 20-25 percent.

The reason I tackled healthcare wasn't because this was my personal hobbyhorse. The reason I tackled it was during the course of the campaign, I traveled all across this country and I kept on hearing heart-breaking stories about families who were bankrupt because they got sick. If they had health insurance, suddenly insurance companies were doing things that were just plain wrong, and were leaving folks in an extremely vulnerable position.

And I was talking to businesses who said this was unsustainable. And, by the way, when I got here and I looked at how we were going to get control of our long-term debt, I realized that there was no way for us to control our long-term debt unless we reformed how our healthcare system works.

and this:

If you ask the American people about health care, one of the things that drives them crazy is insurance companies denying people coverage because of preexisting conditions. Well, it turns out that if you don't -- if you don't make sure that everybody has health insurance, then you can't eliminate insurance companies -- you can't stop insurance companies from discriminating against people because of preexisting conditions. Well, if you're going to give everybody health insurance, you've got to make sure it's affordable. So it turns out that a lot of these things are interconnected. Now, I could have said, well, we'll just do what's safe. We'll just take on those things that are completely noncontroversial. The problem is the things that are noncontroversial end up being the things that don't solve the problem.

and this:

You're not advocating that the House pick up the Senate bill.

OBAMA: I think it is very important for the House to make its determinations. I think, right now, they're feeling obviously unsettled and there were a bunch of provisions in the Senate bill that they didn't like, and so I can't force them to do that. Now I will tell you, and I've said this before, that the House and the Senate bill overlap about 90 percent.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Right.

OBAMA: And so, it does seem to me that there should be a way of, after all this work and all this pain, there should be a way of taking what's best in both bills and going ahead and getting that done,

Which all seem to point toward continuing to work toward keeping the House-Senate compromise on track. Now, talking about a couple elements of the bill as the "core" without mentioning cost containment or low-income subsidies was a major mistake, and it helped throw the Hill Democrats into confusion yesterday.

I suspect Obama misspoke and will correct himself. If not, I'll join Krugman in disappointment.

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posted in: jonathan chait, barney frank, obama, paul krugman, massachusetts, senate, white house

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