On Health Care, President Obama Does His Team No Favors, by Matt Patterson

The recent health care summit was both political theater of the highest order and a clarifying public moment, casting in stark relief the relative values and prospects of both sides of the debate.

Temperamentally, President Barack Obama did his team no favors – he was by turns haughty, condescending and long winded.  The Republicans, by contrast, with no one person to speak for them, contributed to the discussion by turn and in roles designed to maximize their individual strengths – avuncular Lamar Alexander1 opened with a soft spoken and earnest statement; young Turk Paul Ryan attacked with barbed policy points; Mitch McConnell rebutted Democratic arguments with southern grace, etc.2

Tactically, similar strategies led to a draw.  Republicans brought in copies of the enormous health care bills, read from them, referenced them, all to the annoyance of the Democrats – Obama even scolded Rep. Eric Cantor for using the Senate bill as a “prop.”3  The Democrats meanwhile, read from props of their own – letter after letter, allegedly from constituents, detailing one health care horror story after another.4  (Of course, it does not logically follow that ObamaCare, 1) would rectify these tales of woe, or 2) wouldn’t cause problems of their own, but never mind.)

Philosophically, the two sides are like oil and water.  Democrats obsess over the uninsured; the Republicans over cost.  The Democrats believe it’s the business of the government to dictate coverage; the Republicans that government’s role must be limited and encourage competition.  It is two vastly different views of the nature and rationale of federal authority, a difference between top down and bottom up, between centralized or diffused power, between government that knows best and liberty that comes first.

The best line of the whole summit was uttered by Cantor, who delivered what should have been the death blow to the discussion and the bills when he put his hand on the Senate bill and said to the President:  “We can’t afford this. That is the ultimate problem here.”5

Quite right.  The President claims his plan would cost about $950 billion.6  That’s $950 billion more than we have.  Our anticipated budget deficit for 2010 will be a record $1.6 trillion; the CBO foresees $6 trillion in deficits over the next decade, an untenable situation which even Obama’s Secretary of State admits is a sobering national security challenge.7 

In fact, these deficits are a mortal threat to our civilization.  If these politicians were truly honest, they would have looked at each other and said, “Cantor’s right, there’s no way we can afford this right now!” adjourned the meeting, retired to their respective offices and chambers, and got to work getting Americans back to work, which is what they should have been doing in the first place.

But they didn’t, of course, for in high stakes poker, if you’re in, you’re in all the way.  And the President seems to have played his hand well – Rasmussen reports a three point jump in his plan’s favorability from the week before the summit, though a majority are still opposed.8  The public appears to have given him some credit for going through the motions of negotiating, and too few watched to have been put off by the President’s pouting and scolding. 

And on March 2, Obama sent a letter to Congressional leaders saying that he is open to incorprating four GOP proposals into his health care plan.9  He can now say that he sat down the other side, listened to their arguments, and came away open to some of their ideas.  The gauntlet is now thrown to the Republicans, who must argue that their proposals weren’t offered for incorporation into the President’s plan, but as replacements for it.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter what the Republicans argue, or what the public thinks.  The Democrats, at the President’s urging, will use the slight bump in momentum gleaned from the summit as political cover to force their plan through Congress, via reconciliation, on a party line vote.

They may well succeed, and in so doing will have done more damage to their careers, their party, and their country than they can possibly imagine.

Matt Patterson is a policy analyst for the National Center For Public Policy Research.  


1 “Sen. Lamar Alexander makes opening remarks at White House health summit,” Washington Post, February 5, 2010, downloaded from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/25/AR2010022502481.html on March 2, 2010.

2 “Notes of Matt Patterson Taken While Watching Health Care Summit,” February 25, 2010.

3 “President Obama Chides Rep. Cantor for Use of Props at Health-Care Summit,” youtube, February 25, 2010, downloaded from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuygCN_tq8k on March 1, 2010.

4 “Notes of Matt Patterson Taken While Watching Health Care Summit,” February 25, 2010.

5 “Key Quotes from the White House healthcare summit,” Reuters, February 25, 2010, downloaded from http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN2525463720100225 on March 1, 2010.

6 “Obama proposes $950 billion health bill,” Reuters, February 22, 2010, downloaded from http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN2219009420100222 on March 2, 2010.

7 Peter S. Green ,”Clinton Says U.S. Deficit, Debt a National Security Concern,” Bloomberg, February 26, 2010, downloaded from http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601070&sid=abAB.zSg4x.w on March 2, 2010.

8 “Health Care Reform,” Rasmussen Reports, March 1, 2010, downloaded from http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/current_events/healthcare/september_2009/health_care_reform o March 2, 2010.

9 Barack Obama , “Letter to Leaders,” March 2, 2010, downloaded from http://www.foxnews.com/projects/pdf/Letter_to_Leaders.pdf on March 2, 2010.

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