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.”
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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.”