This is written shortly after conclusion of Thursday's White House Health Care Summit and, as usual, without exposure to TV talking heads, focus group reports, partisan spinners, or other information sources. Both parties to the debate satisfied, to a large degree, their own objectives and probably reinforced their own core supporters. It will be many days before we see how independent and on-the-fence voters respond to the dialogue and its aftermath.
President Obama, moderating, directing discussion, and, in the end, closing the meeting on his own terms with a wrap-up statement, displayed knowledgeability regarding health-care issues. He also left an impression with viewers that he was not a threatening ideologue, bent on a statist agenda, but prepared to entertain reasonable proposals from the Republican opposition. (For those who keep tabs, remarks by Obama and other Democrats consumed about two-thirds of the time in the meeting; those by Republicans only about one third).
Rather than beginning the session by suggesting he was open to GOP tort-reform and selling-insurance-across-state-lines ideas, as I thought he might do, he instead closed the meeting by suggesting that this was the case. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid exchanged brief skeptical glances when Obama did this).
Obama carried the case for the Democratic bills and, generally, was prime respondent to GOP criticisms of them. Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd, Kent Conrad, and Ron Wyden gave strong accounts of themselves. Sen. Lamar Alexander, House Whip Eric Cantor, and Reps. Joe Barton and Paul Ryan made strong presentations for the GOP. Vice President Joe Biden, Pelosi, Reid, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, and Republican House Leader John Boehmer were notably less successful — mainly repeating partisan points. Obama shifted uneasily in his chair as Biden made over-lengthy introductory remarks to a discussion of cost issues. Washington Sen. Patty Murray spoke only briefly and in the meeting's final minutes, when Obama invited any who had not spoken to do so.
Now, what will happen?
- Obama explicitly stated that he would attempt over 4-6 weeks to find common ground with Republicans on a bill that could pass with bipartisan support, citing several areas where he thought it might be found. This no doubt surprised Pelosi, Reid, and some other Democrats who had told Obama earlier that a bill had to pass by March 31 and that, then, it probably could only do so through use of the "reconciliation" tactic which would pass part of a bill with 51 Senate votes, leaving the rest to be dealt with separately. (There is no certainty, it should be added, that sufficient House Democratic votes can be found to support the "reconciliation" path, in which case the legislation might be doomed).
- Obama said that if common ground could not be found in 4-6 weeks, he then would counsel with Democrats to see which route to take to pass comprehensive — not limited and incremental — legislation. He implied use of the reconciliation process.
- If a Democrats-only strategy then failed, Obama said, it would be left to voters to make their judgment in November.
No one left the room pleased. Pelosi and Reid, who both favor a "public option" in health legislation, heard the president abandon that possibility and hold out an olive branch to Republicans they personally had not be prepared to offer. Republicans probably would have been pleased had Obama just rejected their ideas and made it easier to maintain a united front of opposition.
I could not help but feel, as the meeting adjourned, that it would have been well had it happened 6-9 months ago, before health-care bills already had passed both House and Senate, and bipartisan reform been pursued from that point forward. It is late in the day to open the legislation anew. Republicans will be wary. Many Democrats will be resentful that Obama overrode them as legislation neared a final vote.
Obama himself no doubt recognizes by now that he should have exerted control over the issue at a far earlier stage. He left both content and tactics to Democratic congressional leaders and committee chairs until the very last minute of the legislation's development. Only now has he fully taken charge of his principal domestic-policy initiative.
Grades for seminar performance: Obama A-minus; principal GOP spokespersons, B-plus; principal Democratic spokespersons, B-minus. Course grade for all: Incomplete.