Obama's showdown strategy

WASHINGTON — One way to look at President Obama's late personal push for health-care reform is as that of a drowning man grasping at straws, as he offers a few more concessions to congressional Republicans on the shore, who continue to thumb their noses at him.

That is the reading that could be made from his East Room final plea for bipartisanship, wherein he listed a few specific items for negotiations culled from the previous week's summit meeting on the issue. Obama endorsed "state grants on medical malpractice reform, and curbing waste, fraud and abuse in the health-care system," both pet Republican pitches.

But if the events of the last days somehow bring about the enactment of the reform legislation Obama seeks, they more likely will be viewed as the culmination of a crafty campaign to rejuvenate his presidency and his image as a political leader.

First, he will have rescued a seemingly lost cause after the Democrats surrendered their super-majority in the Senate, imperiling the president's whole legislative agenda. Second, he will have cemented a damaging image of the GOP as "the party of No."

To finally pass the revised Democratic health-care reform package will still require navigating a treacherous thicket through the two houses of Congress. Especially in the House, issues such as paying for the hugely expensive plan and overcoming concerns of anti-abortion conservatives in both parties must be resolved.

But Obama, in his carefully staged East Room presentation with all manner of medical personnel as live props, effectively disposed of the Republican leaders' central pitch to discard all that has gone before and "start over."

Congress, he said, "owes the American people a final vote" on the issue "in the next few weeks," and it must be "the same kind of up-or-down vote" that Republicans got for the tax cuts and other proposals in the previous administration. It was a flat admission that he will use the parliamentary device known as reconciliation, without ever using the word, to get his way by a simple majority vote.

Rather than just walking away and accepting defeat on health-care reform, as many thought likely after Obama was deprived of his super-majority vote in the Senate, the president has chosen to pin his administration's future on the showdown he has now established.

In doing so, he is bucking many public-opinion polls indicating that most American voters, fed up with the drawn-out health care debate of the last year, just don't want the proposal denounced by Republicans as everything from a fiscal boondoggle to — gasp! — socialism.

But the merit of a poll is in the eye of the beholder. When their findings square with one's beliefs, they are touted as near infallible. In the view of those who disagree with them, they are impossibly flawed or skewed.

Political candidates in the face of polls unfavorable to them like to say that the only poll that counts is the one that's held on Election Day. Obama is in that camp, in that he is betting on the votes of 216 Democrats in the House and 51 Democrats in the Senate to rally to him, setting aside reservations they may have, to serve their collective political good.

Many of them facing the voters in November may find it hard, in light of the polls, to conclude that voting for any health-care reform will constitute individual political good for them. To them, Obama is making an altruistic pitch to set aside concerns about their reelection for the greater good of the American people, 31 million of them still uninsured.

But also inherent in that plea is the greater good of the Democratic Party and of the broader agenda of Barack Obama over the remaining three years of his first term. That's how critical this fierce political fight over health-care reform has now emerged to be.

In his pep talk Obama noted, "There's a fascination bordering on obsession in the media and in this town about what passing health insurance reform would mean for the next election and the one after that." He said he would "leave to others to sift through the politics." In the next days here, he can count on that happening.

You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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