- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 10, 2009

President Obama on Wednesday evening sought to heed the lessons of health care battles past and present: Don’t show up on Capitol Hill with detailed legislation like Bill Clinton. Don’t stay on the legislative sidelines, as Mr. Obama has for the last six months. And don’t mandate a solution like the public option, which Americans showed up in droves to protest in August.

Instead, Mr. Obama traveled to the Hill offering a skeptical nation and a feuding Congress an overarching blueprint for a health care reform. The speech included ideas aimed at liberal Democrats, moderates in both parties and even conservative Republicans, who were caught off guard by the president’s pledge to launch a pilot program aimed at curbing medical malpractice lawsuits.

“It’s a plan that incorporates ideas from senators and congressmen, from Democrats and Republicans - and yes, from some of my opponents in both the primary and general election,” he said. “And I will continue to seek common ground in the weeks ahead. If you come to me with a serious set of proposals, I will be there to listen.”

The true measure of whether the young president succeeded at his high-risk mission will be whether he can build a bipartisan coalition among diverse constituencies and pass a bill through Congress that has eluded presidents and Congress for decades before him.

The size of the challenge and the complexity of partisan divide were on display in the prime-time setting: a Republican lawmaker yelled out, “You lie,” in the middle of Mr. Obama’s speech and Democrats responded with boos.

The critical move in the bid to find supporters from all corners came with the president’s discussion of the taxpayer-financed “public” insurance option. Even within his own party, the proposal has created a gulf.

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Some, like Rep. Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat, have insisted that they cannot vote for a bill without the public option. Others, like Rep. Mike Ross, Arkansas Democrat and a leader of the conservative Blue Dogs caucus, say they cannot stomach a bill that includes the public option.

Mr. Obama said his fellow Democrats should be able to live with more modest goals, such as invoking the public option only in markets where insurance companies are not providing affordable policies or placing the burden of competition on a co-op or another nonprofit entity.

“To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage affordable for those without it,” Mr. Obama said. “The public option is only a means to that end.”

RELATED AP VIDEO: Click here.

Though it never explicitly stated, Mr. Obama’s speech had one overarching message: In order to change the dynamics of his health care battle, he needs to learn from past mistakes, including those of his own making. The president conceded as much during a revealing interview Wednesday morning.

“I, out of an effort to let Congress do their thing and not step on their toes, probably left too much ambiguity out there which allowed opponents of reform to come in and fill up the airwaves with a lot of nonsense,” the president said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Despite the conciliatory tone, Mr. Obama clearly acknowledged he was stung by the ferocity of the opposition, and vowed to be more aggressive in fighting back.

Though he didn’t assign blame directly, Mr. Obama asserted that his opponents have engaged in “the same partisan spectacle that only hardens the disdain many Americans have toward their own government.” He accused some of his opponents of being “opportunists” trying to “score short-term political points, even if it robs the country of our opportunity to solve a long-term challenge.”

Republicans have not welcomed the idea that their opposition has been a matter of political calculation. They fought back when the White House labeled the town-hall protests an “orchestrated” charade financed by the insurance industry (even as the Mr. Obama relied on organized labor and Democratic Party e-mail lists to rally his supporters to the same events).

In the Republican response Wednesday night, Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., Louisiana Republican and a heart surgeon, said he thinks “it’s clear the American people want health care reform, but they want their elected leaders to get it right.”

Mr. Boustany said the bill that Democrats passed through committee in July “creates 53 new government bureaucracies, adds hundreds of billions to our national debt, and raises taxes on job-creators by $600 billion. And it cuts Medicare by $500 billion, while doing virtually nothing to make the program better for our seniors.”

By the conclusion of the speech, party affiliations still dictated whether observers agreed that Mr. Obama had learned the lessons of the summer town halls.

Todd Harris, a Republican strategist, said he considered the president’s speech to be long on bold rhetoric but short on leadership.

“Even Bill Clinton and Hillary in 1993, they staked out their ground,” Mr. Harris said. “At least they said, this is what we’re going to fight for.”

Democratic strategist Karen Finney disagreed, arguing that the president accomplished the most important goal of the night.

“At the heart of it, what people want to see is him standing up for his plan and laying out a clear vision with details,” she said. “Even if people disagree with the specifics … people are hungry for that leadership.”

Just over a year ago, when Mr. Obama stood before roaring crowds in Denver to accept his party’s nomination for president, his commitment to the nation was that he would be different.

He lamented that “when Washington doesn’t work, all its promises seem empty,” and proclaimed that he would deliver on his vision “of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.”

But over the past month, the vision he laid out that night collided with the realities of governing. Dana Perino, who served as President George W. Bush’s press secretary, said it was a reality his administration was repeatedly forced to confront from both sides of the aisle.

When Mr. Bush pushed Congress to adopt his proposed Social Security reforms in 2005, Democrats rallied to hand the president a defeat, while Republicans “fought so much internally that it caused tension in our own ranks and nothing got solved,” she said. “Sound familiar?”

Speaking to Congress last night, the president urged strident advocates on both sides to come to the middle.

“There are arguments to be made for both approaches,” he said, “but either one would represent a radical shift that would disrupt the health care most people currently have.”

If nothing else, Mr. Obama’s effort to persuade those parties to the middle ground, whether a success or a failure, will provide a lesson for every president to come.

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