President Obama is under attack for saying one thing that is true. He acknowledged on “60 Minutes” on Sunday that he failed at “making an argument that people can understand” in support of his policies, health care reform chief among them.
Disregard the shocking insult to his constituents’ collective intelligence in the above comment, which one can only presume was unintentional. The remark is spot-on, despite the chorus of jeers with which it has been received. Mr. Obama is a man who turned a short and relatively uneventful life into two memoirs and one of the most compelling campaign narratives in American political history. But over the past two years, he somehow lost the ability to make a cogent argument in support of his legislative agenda.
Mr. Obama reportedly inaugurated his presidency in January 2009 by boasting to Republicans behind closed doors, “I won.” A year later, an exasperated Mr. Obama, perhaps realizing the health care summit with Republican leaders wasn’t the public relations coup he’d expected, dismissed criticism of his health care reform plan by taunting Sen. John McCain with, “The election is over.”
We’ve heard this “‘cuz I said so” rationale before. Remember President George W. Bush’s “I’m the decider”? Mr. Bush had the power of the U.S. Constitution behind him regarding the fate of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld when he blurted out the inartful phrase during a 2006 news conference. Nevertheless, underneath it lies the same sentiment as Mr. Obama’s “I won” and “The election’s over.”
These ought to have been the president’s arguments of last resort. Instead they were the principal foundations for his stimulus and health-reform message campaigns.
While the Wednesday-morning quarterbacks still argue about what role the health-reform law played in the Democrats’ Election Day pounding, we all should be able to agree at this point that the Obama administration’s message machine fumbled badly.
Every major government undertaking contributes memorable phrases and expressions to the public lexicon. “The torch has been passed,” “fear itself” and all that. What did we get from the health care battle? “The election’s over” isn’t even the worst. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s “This is a big f… deal” claims that dishonor. Granted, we’re several generations of statesmen removed from “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” but Mr. Biden’s hot-mic vulgarism makes Bill Clinton’s “that depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is” sound positively poetic. The bill itself ended up with 2,700 or so pages of new alphabet-soup bureaucracies as though chimpanzees wrote it during a game of Boggle. Say this about the British: At least they had the wit to brand their “death panel” the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence - NICE. Get it?
Meanwhile, everyone appears to be jumping ugly on Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the wake of the Democrats’ midterm debacle. But the arrangement, we are to understand, was that Obama the orator would travel the country to win popular support for the health care bill while Mrs. Pelosi, with the help of Sens. Harry Reid and Max Baucus, would work out the details and twist arms. She was spectacularly successful. Mr. Obama is the one who failed.
Where were the heart-wrenching personal stories? According to the Democrats’ statistics, there are more than 42 million uninsured Americans. Not one could swing a bus tour with the president? Who was the face of the health care reform campaign? Kathleen Sebelius.
Then there were the waves and waves of endorsements from public (read: special) interest groups. Most we’d never heard of; the ones we had were polarizing.
What little in the way of argumentation we did hear was uninspiring, even meaningless to everyone but hard-core partisans. During the debate, there were numerous exhortations about finally fulfilling Harry Truman’s dream, that this was history 60 years in the making. After it passed, liberal pundits declared that Mr. Obama had entered the annals of Great Presidents. In other words, the argument was about how great the Democrats are, not about health care.
In a nation in which almost half of all citizens receive some form of government assistance, there is a popular argument to be made for insuring every American at the taxpayers’ expense. Conservatives can be thankful we have as president a man who is either unwilling or incapable of making one.
Patrick Hynes is the president of Hynes Communications.