Feature

Obama’s effort to regain health-care momentum

President Obama sought to regain control over the debate on health-care reform, prodding Democratic senators to produce a bill and trying to reframe the issue in a prime-time speech before a joint session of Congress.

What happened
President Obama sought this week to regain control over the debate on health-care reform, prodding Democratic senators to produce a bill and trying to reframe the issue in a prime-time speech before a joint session of Congress. With his approval ratings slipping to 50 percent, Obama was hoping to put a specific set of reform principles on the table and throw the full weight of his weakened presidency behind them. He was scheduled to deliver his speech as The Week went to press. Obama’s presidency stands to be largely defined by the fate of reform. “The weeks ahead will either enhance his power and authority or it may diminish it,” said former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, leader of a “Gang of Six” group of senators from both parties seeking a compromise, unveiled a nearly $900 billion “outline” that requires coverage for nearly all Americans, and pays for it partly by new taxes on health-insurance companies. As an alternative to the government-run health plan Obama favors, the compromise bill also creates a network of nonprofit insurance co-ops to compete with private insurers and thus drive down costs. But some Democrats said a “public option”—a government-run plan—must be part of any reform package, and kept open the possibility of passing the legislation without Republican support. Republican leaders remained adamantly opposed. “The status quo is not acceptable,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, “but neither are any of the proposals we’ve seen from the White House or Democrats in Congress.”

What the editorials said

“Nobody said this would be easy,” said The Washington Post. But “there’s more agreement on the essentials” than all the recent shouting suggests. Here are the basics: Require every American to buy insurance, and provide subsidies to those who can’t afford it; tax employers who don’t offer insurance; establish transparent insurance exchanges to enable consumers to shop for plans. “It’s a mark of the fundamental soundness” of this legislation that most objections are focused on extraneous details, such as fictitious “death panels.”

There’s agreement, all right—among congressional liberals, said National Review. Having heard the citizenry’s passionate objections to Obamacare, the liberals have concluded that the only problem with this “enormously expensive” scheme is “the madness of the Right and the ignorance of the public.” But the audacity of Barack Obama has finally hit a populist wall. “The Democrats may be at the start of a retreat on health care; let it be a long one.”

What the columnists said
The conflicts are “real and raw,” said Ronald Brownstein in the Los Angeles Times. But it’s worth noting where conflict is absent. For the first time, “traditional antagonists in the health-care debate”—including the drug industry, the American Medical Association, and corporations such as Wal-Mart, AT&T, and Intel—“support the basic thrust of the Democratic reform bills,” which is to get everyone in America covered. Republicans still want to kill reform, but “many traditionally Republican business interests” are working to ease its passage.

True, Obama has cut “backroom deals with every manner of special interest,” said Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post. But that has hardly enhanced his stature with the public, whose disappointment in a president who once seemed invincible has been devastating. Having “vastly” overreached on reform, Obama’s “spell is broken,” and he looks like just another flailing politician. His biggest mistake was putting health care in the hands of dithering congressional Democrats, said Maureen Dowd in The New York Times. That allowed Republicans to get up off the mat and seize control of the public debate. Obama “should have done this speech back in June.”

Actually, the timing may be just right, said Ezra Klein in TheWashingtonpost.com. All the criticism of Congress notwithstanding, it has managed to move a variety of reform options out of committee and down the playing field. Now, Obama is deploying “the power and prestige of his office to push health-care reform over the goal line.” He may not get all he wants, but even a compromise like the Baucus plan would be a historic achievement.

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