President Obama’s speech to Congress on health care reform on Wednesday evening was well received by his activist base. It was emotive, aggressive and overflowing with liberal sentiment. But were these followers his target audience?
The answer became clear the following day when secret meetings were held in the White House to cajole reluctant Democratic legislators to sign up for the floundering health care reform measures. Given the balance of power in Congress, if all Democrats stick with him, President Obama only needs the support of one Republican Senator. But it is a big “if”.
Democratic waverers may endorse many of the President’s health care objectives, but they also have to weigh their own re-electability. Many know that signing up to a government takeover of one-sixth of the economy and further extending record budget deficits is not necessarily going to appeal to a majority of their voters fourteen months from now. Opinion polls show that the reforms are supported by a shrinking minority of Americans.
Obama’s speech amounted to a lengthy berating of their political caution, an embarrassing spectacle at the hands of their own President on prime time television.
Republicans have been largely kept out of the health care bill writing. It was his own party that the President was aiming at when he invoked the memory of Ted Kennedy and warned about timidity passing for wisdom. “I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than improve it. If you misrepresent what’s in this plan, we will call you out. I will not accept the status quo as a solution.”
In other words, you’re with me or your against me; don’t dare choose the latter. Is this the best way for a President to lobby his own foot soldiers in Congress?
There was certainly little attempt to reach out to Congressional Republicans. The tone was far from conciliatory. The President dismissed all but one of the Republicans’ proposals, suggested their opposition was insincere and called certain criticisms a “lie”. This is hardly the type of reaching out and togetherness that the President promised in the general election campaign. It certainly didn’t sound like a deft attempt at compromise.
If the strong arm Chicago tactics work and the recalcitrant Congressmen are tortured into submission (politically speaking, of course), the President will doubtless feel vindicated in his approach. But now that he has shown his hand so openly, much rests politically on his ability to deliver.
A good salesman identifies his target and tries to build empathy and trust. The President seemed exasperated. While politics is notoriously dirty, bullying and publicly humiliating Congressional partners just eight months into an Administration is a risky tactic. Perhaps the President would have done better to define his health care goals in the first place and work with Congressional leaders to build a single bill rather than let matters drift.
If the votes are not compiled in Congress and a much watered down health care reform results, how will Wednesday evening’s salesmanship come to be viewed by Democratic Congressmen and by the wider public? Will this speech be seen as a crucial moment of failure in the President’s term of office? Will health care, as Republican Senator Jim DeMint predicted, become the President’s Waterloo?
The President inspired his followers but this speech and these tactics could retire his Congressional comrades come November 2010.