- The Washington Times - Monday, February 22, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Politicians don’t only have to lead, they also have to follow, and senior Democrats in Washington appear to have forgotten that.

This week’s health care summit is a perfect example. Since November, voters have made clear that they do not want health reform as a top national priority. Yet President Obama continues to devote huge amounts of attention to the topic, including the talkfest at Blair House on Thursday.

That is a mistake from which he and his party will not recover unless they change course soon.

Like it or not, one of the fundamental traits of a successful politician is an ability to read the public mood and adjust to it. One senator years ago put it this way: His job, he said, was to see the parade forming and jump in front of it.

President Obama and the Democratic leaders in Congress obviously see the parade, but they have chosen to walk the other way.

Sure, the president and his party have offered proposals - and have made extensive promises - that deal with unemployment and slow economic growth, issues on which the public would prefer them to concentrate.

But when they have come close to acting on those intentions, the leaders have come up short. Incredibly, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid actually shelved a jobs bill that had been authored jointly by Democrats and Republicans on the Finance Committee - a rare and welcome bipartisan effort.

A Democrats-only alternative - the main alternative now available - remains on shaky ground.

In the meantime, Mr. Obama and Mr. Reid talk a lot about - of all things - health care. At a town-hall-style meeting last week in Nevada, Mr. Reid’s home state, the president, on a mission to boost the senator’s sagging hopes for re-election this year, devoted much of his rhetoric on the need to revive health reform.

Back in Washington, Mr. Reid is privately pushing a plan - apparently backed by the White House - that would enable major portions of health reform to pass with a bare majority of votes rather than the 60 votes that Republican filibuster threats have required.

To be sure, it’s not certain Mr. Reid will be able to round up even the 51 votes he would need in the Senate to ram through health reform under the parliamentary protections of “reconciliation” that he envisions.

Many moderate Democrats are telling their leaders that they don’t want to take any more votes on health care, except maybe on small measures that are wildly popular.

But even if Mr. Reid were able to force such a vote to victory, Republicans and a good portion of the electorate would punish him and his party for using a trick to pass an unpopular initiative.

The maneuver would be more proof - if any were needed - that the party of President Obama had decided what’s good for the American people and was going to deliver it to them whether they wanted it or not.

Such brazenness might work in some countries, but not in a nation as well informed and politically active as this one.

No one faults Mr. Obama for identifying a real problem - health coverage - and trying to find workable solutions. That’s what presidents are supposed to do.

Indeed, Republicans are not shy about saying that they have their own set of ideas on the subject and are as eager as Democrats to put them out for citizens to dissect.

But focusing on health care when the public is all but screaming that it needs more time to examine the alternatives and would rather concentrate on something else is tantamount to political malpractice.

Why is this happening? Perhaps the former Clinton administration officials who populate the Obama hierarchy are hungry for vindication. After all, President Clinton wasted the first part of his first term pressing for a health reform that the public also rejected.

Passing the health legislation now would be sweet revenge. Those officials think comprehensive health reform is the right thing to do, a dream they have had for decades.

But surely those officials also must have learned that forging ahead with a failed initiative can produce disastrous results. After all, Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, one year after Clintoncare failed.

Certainly there was a connection. This year, a few Republican leaders have been hesitant to participate in this week’s health care summit. They fear it is a trap for them laid by the president.

Given the perils of the issue, the health summit is, in fact, a trap - laid by the president for himself.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations. His firm’s clients include health companies.

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