Did Obama Do The Right Thing By Taking The Focus Off Health Care?

Matt Yglesias responds to those of us who thought that the health care section of President Obama’s State of the Union address should have laid out a specific way forward, reclaimed the sense of urgency in previous speeches, or at least committed Congress to passing health care reform before the end of the year:

I think he made the right call. The speech is a speech to the American people, especially to people who follow politics pretty casually, and regular people don’t want to hear about congressional process. The reality is that this is going to have to be worked out behind the scenes, behind the dread closed doors. But one of the main points of the speech was to get the focus on Obama and Obama’s themes and off closed door dealmaking. So he emphasized the need for action and correctly situated the call for health reform in a broader context of economics reform.

There is certainly some sense in shifting health care reform from public view. The legislation has become a symbol of Washington corruption and drawing more attention to the process could have fed the winds of popular discontent and buried the entire effort. The Massachusetts election and the administration’s reluctance to set a specific course of action in the hours after, has complicated reform, stripped it of its inevitability and generally provided reluctant Democrats with a reason to oppose the effort.

If Obama had laid out a roadmap for how to pass the legislation, he may have very well killed it. But by moving reform to the back burner — by failing to build on any momentum in Congress — he runs a greater chance of seeing any remaining possibility of comprehensive reform evaporate. And many in Congress were looking to him for direction.


Today, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) said health care reform was now “on life support” and said that the President should have been more specific with how Democrats should move forward. “He should have been more clear, and I am hoping that in the next week or two he will because that is what it is going to take if it is at all possible to get it done,” Landrieu said. Hours before the President delivered his address, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) hinted that the House may be able to pass the Senate health care bill and on Monday, House majority whip James Clyburn (D-SC) told The Plum Line’s Greg Sargent that Obama should “throw his weight behind this approach during tomorrow’s State of the Union Address.” “I think that would be helpful,” Clyburn said. “I would like for him to say that we ought to do the fixes…and pass the rest of the Senate bill. I think it would be good for him to let everybody know.”

The State of the Union provided Obama with an opportunity to overcome the popular divisiveness surrounding reform and mobilize Congress into action. The emphasis on the deficit, jobs and the economy allowed the president to make the economic case for health care reform. As he said in September, “Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem. Nothing else even comes close. Nothing else.” These remarks would have been unpopular, but they would have been true. And as Obama said last night, “Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths and pointing fingers. We can do what’s necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what’s best for the next generation.

Obama said, “when I ran for President, I promised I wouldn’t just do what was popular -– I would do what was necessary.” But on health care, he didn’t live up to his own expectation.