Right now White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel needs to do the first worthwhile thing since he came to Washington: He should lean over and whisper in President Barack Obama’s ear to remind him that he really is president of the United States—he’s not just playing that role on TV.
The announcement over the weekend of Obama’s latest gambit to restart his stalled health care legislation came in a live interview with Katie Couric before the Super Bowl—a conversation full of forced informality, punctuated with tested lines repeated from his State of the Union address and stump speeches. There was no shift in policy, no offer to begin from the beginning, no sign he had learned the lessons of Massachusetts. Obama merely offered the Republican minority a vague opportunity for a televised summit on health care and reiterated his commitment to get something—anything—passed.
The move reeks of desperation. Democrats on Capitol Hill are terrified by their sole ownership of the health care hot potato—unpopular only among voters on the right, left, and middle—all the way to Election Day. They are clamoring for the White House to find a way to shift the blame to those intransigent Republicans.
Obama didn’t help their cause when he chose to meet with Republican members recently, saying in the course of the event that he had read their plans and respected their ideas. Given that the majority wants to paint the minority as the Party of No, recognizing that Republicans have any ideas at all is a mistake.
Nonetheless, Obama and the Democrat leadership will once more troop before the cameras, reemphasize the importance of their plans, and browbeat Republicans for opposing them. According to sources on Capitol Hill, Obama wants an agreement ironed out between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid before the summit begins, so legislation can move forward regardless of the outcome. When the Republican leadership sent a letter to the White House asking for assurances that their ideas would at least be considered or receive a fair hearing, the response from spokesman Robert Gibbs was a pretty clear “don’t bet on it.”
Left out, of course, is any acknowledgement of the letter the Republican leadership sent last May requesting a true bipartisan summit, hashing out policy differences, before legislation had been decided upon. Weeks later, Obama responded with a terse, three-paragraph letter in which he repeated his claim of being eager to work with them, but ignored their request entirely. He didn’t need them then.
This next summit could backfire, of course. The plans the Democrats hashed out after lengthy closed-door meetings are grab-bags of mandates, taxes, kickbacks, and carve-outs, and they are extremely unpopular. The party’s liberal base will not allow Democrat leaders to take any of the steps necessary to win even a few Republican votes in the Senate, and in the House it is not even clear whether Pelosi can match her prior vote total.
Over the past few weeks, many of the White House’s cheerleaders have begun to argue that the real problem for Obama is America itself, that it is a fickle, angry, irresponsible place that has actually become ungovernable. Prominent liberal voices on editorial pages call for ending the filibuster practice that made Scott Brown’s election matter. They cannot understand why, after a year with such enormous majorities, Obama has achieved little more than spending the nation into oblivion. Something must be wrong with the system.
There is nothing wrong with the system—just the man. Obama could have inserted himself into the decision-making process on health care policy at any time. He could have ironed out the differences within his own party months ago. He could have assembled a more centrist package with a few small, pro-market reforms to make it acceptable to 10 Republican senators, not just one.
Instead he chose to give speeches long on platitudes and short on details and leave the hard work to Congress. No wonder the plans ended up schizophrenic, disorganized muddles—that’s what Congress does. Obama might know this if he had, in his brief time in the Senate, passed more than one piece of legislation.
The presidency demands a great deal more than just showing up. Smiling for the cameras is not a policy strategy. Showmanship is not leadership. On health care, Obama has done nothing to indicate he recognizes the difference.
Benjamin Domenech, a former political appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services, is managing editor of Health Care News.