THE TREATMENT JANUARY 27, 2010
If you follow health care reform, you probably want to know if President Obama saved health care reform with his State of the Union address. The answer is no.
But that's only because there's no way he could save it with just one speech. It's too big a job. All Obama could do Wednesday night was to send some messages, about his expectations and priorities. And there I think he did pretty much what he needed to do.
Keep in mind that Obama was really addressing two separate audiences: The public and the Congress. The public needed to hear about policy--to be reminded of why health care reform even matters and why the type of bill President Obama supports would be good for them. Members of Congress needed to hear about procedure--to be told, by their leader, how they should move ahead with deliberations.
My judgment on whether Obama convinced the public of reform's substantive merits is hardly objective. I've spent most of the last decade arguing that reform is essential and I've spent most of the last year arguing that the bills moving through Congress, whatever their flaws, would make life better for millions and represent the greatest policy achievement in a generation.
Still, I also appreciate the failure reformers have made this year--the fact that they haven't conveyed the stakes all Americans have in reform and the benefits all Americans could reap.
Fortunately, Obama seems to grasp this too. He acknowledged, explicitly and with a sense of humor, his administration's failure to explain the plan--and noted that few people understand exactly what it would do. He also reminded people, in simple terms, of the reasons he took up the challenge. He talked about people suffering because they had no insurance or their insurance was inadequate--and he talked about the economic importance of controlling health care costs.
None of this material was new. His speechwriters could literally have cut and pasted it from past speeches and press releases. (For all that I know they did!) But given the popular caricature of the plan, a simple restatement of first principles was absolutely necessary.
As for his message to the members of Congress, Obama certainly conveyed that health care remained a top priority, despite the political trouble it's brought him and his party. Obama could have seconded, implicitly or explicitly, calls for scaling back reform. Instead, he admonished Congress not to back down:
Here's what I ask Congress. ... Don't walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let's get it done.
On the other hand, Obama didn't offer a procedural roadmap. He didn't give a new deadline or indicate his preference for one bill or the other.
So was that enough?
I canvassed about ten key sources on Capitol Hill, focusing on the members, staff, and advocates most committed to passing reform. Every one (literally) seemed relatively pleased and some seemed very pleased, even without the step-by-step instructions.
"He gave us a strong endorsement," Congressman John Dingell, longtime reform champion, said in a telephone interview. "It wasn't as specific as some people would have liked, but that's something that will come later." Ron Pollack, president of FamiliesUSA and another longtime reform champion, agreed, calling the speech "very, very helpful."
In short, Obama gave reform advocates the support, and cover, they needed.
Still, even those enthused by the endorsement said the real test was what comes next--whether, in the days and (gulp) weeks to follow, Obama intervenes in the legislative process more strongly than he has been recently. As Ezra Klein, Sam Stein, and I have all noted, the administration spent most of the last week sending weak, inconsistent messages about how to pass a bill--at a time when Democrats were in disarray and reform advocates were begging for clear guidance.
"The president highlighted the need for the House and Senate to work together to get it enacted into law," Congressman Pete Stark said in a prepared statement. "I would add to those remarks that we also need his leadership to achieve that goal. The Senate bill couldn’t pass the Senate again at this point, much less the House."
Staff and lobbyists, speaking on background, conveyed similar sentiments: "I thought it was good," said one senior Senate staffer. "He called us out. He needs to do that more." A well-connected strategist was more pointed: "What matters is the follow-through."
That sounds about right to me. Obama got it right tonight. But reform's fate depends on whether he gets it right tomorrow, too.
Update: A lot of analysts are saying Obama didn't give health care reformers the supported they needed, because he didn't spend enough time talking about the subject and/or signal his support for a particular bill or parliamentary technique.
The insiders I consulted last night didn't see things that way. And that included two who, just days ago, were criticizing the White House for its apparent ambivalence. This morning another source, a senior Senate aide, e-mailed with similar thoughts:
It was adequate. Despite the setting, this was a speech for the country, and the country heard a sufficient amount about the President's commitment to health care. You didn't want overkill given the public's concern about other things, namely jobs.
To the politicians and media folks sifting for clues in his speech about hcr's priority these days, there will be a temptation to think he gave it a short gloss that means he's downsizing his ambitions. But offices are still hearing enough from the WH privately and the President is still making the case in other interviews, etc, to know he isn't dropping it.
Over at Talking Points Media, Brian Beutler seems to be picking up more or less the same message.
Again, the real test is what Obama and his advisors do now--whether they can send one message, rather than several, and send it strongly. But last night's effort was fine.