Volume 79, Number 24 | November 18 - 24, 2009
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Talking Point

Obama triumph ahead: Why he’ll win healthcare battle

By Ben Goddard

Much of the political chatter about healthcare reform lately has been of the glass-half-empty variety. Speaker Nancy Pelosi had to make too many deals. Blue Dog Democrats who were corralled into supporting the legislation are now vulnerable. The calendar allows Republicans to organize dozens of high-profile town hall meetings to rally constituents in opposition.

Yes, there is a rocky road ahead. But I don’t think that is what most Americans are focused on. Even after all the August town halls, the marches in Washington and the campaigns being waged against the Obama proposal, Americans still want healthcare reform. A majority still support some form of a public option to provide greater competition in the insurance marketplace. Yes, there are swing districts where support for any government-run plan could cost Democrats votes. But if history provides any glimpse of the future, and it usually does, that pain will likely be mitigated once there is actually a law on the books. Runaway costs and fears of a government takeover were raised against Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Those programs are now virtually untouchable — the third rails of American politics.

So what message did America get from the historic vote in the House? Well, I’m not sure everyone would articulate it in exactly these words, but the sense I get from the grassroots is that the president scored. The message for most Americans is that Barack Obama has done what no president has ever done before. He actually got a bill passed in one house of Congress. When the president visited Capitol Hill on Saturday there was nothing but speculation and high hopes on the part of those wanting a bill. When he left there were 220 votes — even an unexpected Republican one. Pelosi certainly deserves a lot of credit for her commitment to the cause. Her oft-derided liberalism gave her the leverage she needed to keep one wing of her caucus in line, and her last-minute pragmatic dealing kept many from the other wing in the fold. She deserves kudos for engineering that legislative victory. But it was POTUS — the president — who sank the 30-foot shot and made sure she could declare that the bill had passed.

This president certainly showed that he has learned from the mistakes made by the Clinton White House; in fact, his strategy was almost a complete reversal of the one used by President Clinton back in the day. He started by reaching out to many of the groups that had opposed the Clinton plan 15 years before. He cut deals with the pharmaceutical industry, the hospital industry and even had insurers at the table for six months or so. Most important, he didn’t deliver a package created in a vacuum to the Congress. He laid out the principles and goals of reform and then asked the legislators to legislate. It wasn’t always a pretty sight, and there have been stumbles along the way, but something finally got done.

There are still a lot of messy fights ahead over the details. Special interests will continue trying to carve out exceptions for themselves and, if possible, figure some way to actually make a little more money out of the system. Liberals will carp that the legislation is not good enough. Conservatives will bemoan the fact that it goes too far. But it looks like Obama actually has momentum. It now appears likely that some kind of healthcare reform will land on his desk early next year. If it does, he will sign the most important and sweeping domestic legislation in half a century.

That will, eventually, be the message America’s voters get out of this battle. They wanted reform 15 years ago — two-thirds said then that they wanted “radical reform.” Now they will happily settle for something a little less. And when the bill actually becomes law, President Obama and most of the Democrats in Congress will get the credit for it.

As a cynical old political hack and the guy who created the “Harry and Louise” campaign that many credit with — or blame for — the demise of Clinton healthcare, I’m supposed to be a little less of a Pollyanna about such matters. But I can’t help it. Like a lot of Americans, I’m thinking that the “skinny kid with a funny name” who grew up to be president just may pull this off. I’m going to savor that message a little before we get back into the game.

Goddard, working for the health insurance industry, was the mind behind the “Harry and Louise” campaign that helped galvanize opinion against the Clinton healthcare plan in 1994. He is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.

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