President Barack Obama’s final speech before this weekend’s anticipated vote on health care legislation had the same soaring rhetoric he’s been known for, those turns of phrase that sound awfully pretty unless you think about them too hard.
Obama’s speeches are what a speechwriter I knew liked to call “cotton candy communication”—sticky sweet and airy, made for children, comforting to the listener as they hear, but melting away, instantly forgettable. Plus, ingest too much of it and you get sick as a dog.
There was one note in this speech, though, that stuck out by typifying Obama’s views, encapsulating his approach to health care policy, and indicating a disturbing level of desperation in his young presidency.
“In just a few days,” Obama said, referring to the Sunday roll call, “a century-long struggle will culminate in an historic vote.”
Obama likes to cast things in terms of century-long battles. He did so in his State of the Union address, referring to a law considered half that age at most, which prompted a headshake from Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. But what is prompting him to make this assertion regarding his health care legislation, which dramatically affects an arena of government policy that has not even existed for a hundred years?
There is no conceivable date he could be measuring from, unless he has a strong sense of irony not previously in evidence. Trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt would undoubtedly excoriate the idea of special interests setting the parameters of national reform, with support campaigns from unions and activist shell groups, PhRMA in the room during every significant negotiation, more than a hundred-million dollars in propagandistic ads for legislation which will protect the industry status quo, and the like.
The fact that Obama continues to spend such energy in support of legislation that all reputable independent data suggest will raise premium costs, increase the entitlement burden, destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs, and enforce a dramatic disincentive for success indicates that this is all about politics, not which policies actually work best for the American people.
Over the past week, in backroom conversations with members of Congress, Obama changed his negotiation tone from demanding to desperate. He told progressives that the outcome of the rest of his term depended on what happened on health care, and a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus confided to Politico that Obama changed his position on this weekend’s vote by saying “the fate of his presidency” rested on it.
It’s not hard to see why the president would feel this way. The tidal wave of popularity he rode into office has crashed and withdrawn. This week Gallup found, for the first time, that more Americans disapprove of President Obama than approve – a shift made all the more jarring when you consider how little he has achieved in his short tenure in return for so much spent political capital.
Such crumbling popularity would give any politician pause, especially one who has spent most of his political career appearing before cheering crowds who proclaim trust, optimism, and hope for him. Obama’s dedication to passing this spectacularly flawed and unpopular health care bill appears to be based on the assumption that the American people like a winner even if the victory comes at their expense.
Other presidents have made this mistake. Voters may not have memories as long as they once did, but they will remember who this brave new health care world belongs to, and the blame for it will be a palpable political factor in the decades to come.
As the dangerous outcomes of this plan become apparent, Obama may well come to regret this moment when he chose political expediency over what’s right for the nation. When historians judge this presidency they may well point to this moment as signaling the end of Obama’s cotton candy storyline of “the people vs. the powerful,” the rhetoric that once drove to his side multitudes of people fed up with the ways of Washington, the lies, kickbacks, shady backroom deals, and lack of transparency.
Once, they trusted and hoped in his ability to achieve change. Now the American people know whose side he’s on.
Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter and political appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services, is managing editor of Health Care News.