- The Washington Times - Friday, February 26, 2010

Only an hour into the great health care summit and Barack Obama, though trying to stay awake, thought he could safely call it a success. Joe Biden had slipped into the land of dreamy dreams, and the president, resting his chin on his hand, was trying hard not to nod off. The C-SPAN camera caught nap time for all to see.

Deprived of his teleprompter, the president was having a devil of a time not only staying awake but trying to shape the concentrated argle-bargle to fit his agenda. He couldn’t get a speech going, try as he might, and though he had promised to meet Republicans as equals at one point the Democrats were getting about twice more speaking time as the Republicans. “I don’t count my time,” he said, “because I’m the president.”

The Republicans had obviously taken heed of early warnings they were speeding into a trap, and came prepared for battle this time. The soft-spoken Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee particularly rattled the president early on, not so much with his assertions about the costs of Obamacare but by taking the president on as an equal, armed with facts a little more than equal to the Democratic party-line rhetoric. The president pointedly mocked Sen. John McCain, who had delivered a brief soliloquy about how Obamacare was wrong to treat some Americans better than others. “Uh, let me just make this point,” the president replied. “We’re not campaigning anymore. Uh, John. The election’s over.”

The president obviously intended the session to be an indoctrinating moment, with himself as the stern instructor and the members of Congress as pupils to sit up straight and speak only when spoken to. He wanted to arrive at the session armed with all the impressive and intimidating bells and whistles of a presidential visit, and might have employed Air Force One to get him across Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House. But the avenue is a short runway for a Boeing 747. He nevertheless continually reminded everyone, in small ways and large, who he was - in the way of comedian Chevy Chase’s famous “Saturday Night Live” retort to a persistent questioner: “I’m the president, and you’re not.” Mr. Obama sharply scolded Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia for bringing along a copy of the 2,400-page Senate bill and the 11-page proposal the president posted on the Internet earlier in the week. He called Mr. Cantor’s preparation “the type of political stunt that gets in the way of serious conversation.” The “truth of the matter,” the president said, as Mr. Cantor began to speak, is health care is a very complicated subject.

Well, duh. But if Republican congressmen insist on reading from the actual legislation, instead of taking as Gospel the president’s honeyed words (as honeyed as he can make them without his teleprompter), they keep the president from making something simple into something complicated and hard to understand. The president’s problem is that the public understands very well what’s in the elixir he’s peddling. A CNN poll released Wednesday showed that only 25 percent of Americans want to take the legislative medicine.

The president and his Democratic colleagues have made it abundantly clear that the idea of starting over, this time with the Republicans actually getting a say, won’t be considered. Barack Obama is comfortable as President No. However, the Wall Street Journal reports that a fall-back plan, a more modest reform, is in the works if, as Mr. Obama obviously expects, the Thursday summit fails to ignite an explosion of enthusiasm for the “reform” legislation twice left for the undertaker. The scaled-down scheme would require insurance companies to enable uninsured Americans to stay on their parents’ insurance until they reach age 26, and expand Medicaid and insurance programs for children of poor families. This would cost only about a fourth of the costs of Obamacare.

This would be quite a comedown for the president who has scorned Republican pleas to reform health care with incremental steps, but it would give him something to call a victory, even if it’s “change” that he doesn’t actually believe in. His leftmost allies would scream sellout, but nobody would be listening. The great health care “debate” would be over, and Democratic congressmen terrified of what’s ahead in November could take a deep breath and join Joe and the president in a nap, and tell themselves they might not have to go home to look for real jobs, after all.

c Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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