Politics & Policy

Health Care: Obama’s Make-or-Break

Obama may be thwarted by the recalcitrance of reality.

EDITOR’S NOTEThis column is available exclusively through King Features Syndicate. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact: 

kfsreprint@hearstsc.com, or phone 800-708-7311, ext 246.

Barack Obama has had a masterly run. Starting with the Iowa caucuses in January 2008, he has been, if not The One We’ve Been Waiting For, the one best suited to tap the wellsprings of public sentiment and capitalize on political circumstances.

During his golden year and a half, Obama caught a wave of change that propelled him into the White House, and only grew stronger when he took office during a roiling financial crisis. When challenged, Obama has resorted to his rhetorical prowess to defuse controversies (the Rev. Jeremiah Wright), to champion embattled policies (the stimulus), and even to try to soothe civilizational animosities (the Muslim world’s hostility to America).

The man and his words have met the moment. Obama has been a phenomenon as much as a politician. Less JFK, more the Beatles.

But several questions have always attended his vertiginous rise: What if the wave of change recedes or shifts direction? What if his eloquent words collide too obviously with reality? What, in short, if the phenomenon ends?

Obama’s extreme deficit spending and auto bailouts have for the first time made him responsible for policies people want to change. That’s a novel position for him after running so long against all that people disliked about the Bush years. “Change” might be shifting to the other foot. The president’s job-approval number remains high, but his ratings have dipped on the economy, and his standing has slid among independents.

If the public turns on Obama, it won’t be out of animus to him personally. People will always think him smart and charismatic — for the simple reason that he is. Nor are they ever likely to conclude that’s he’s a radical or a cynic. His affect is too reasonable for the first and too earnest for the second. No, the danger is that the public will conclude that he’s “a nice young man” — talented and well-meaning, but ineffectual and a little naïve.

“The president is at liberty both in law and in conscience to be as big a man as he can,” Woodrow Wilson once said. Obama’s peril is looking diminished, like an inexperienced senator whom circumstances (and the media) conspired to shoot out of a cannon up the political ladder.

More than any other issue, the fate of health-care reform will determine his standing. It’s as important for Obama as Social Security reform was for George W. Bush at the beginning of his second term, or health care was for Bill Clinton at the beginning of his first. Defeats for Bush and Clinton changed the tenor and direction of their presidencies. There’s a reason that California congressman and liberal lion Henry Waxman calls health care “a make-or-break issue for Barack Obama.”

Once again, people are being asked to believe that a trillion dollars in new spending is fiscally prudent. Once again, they’re being asked to believe that the government can manage an enormous, complex enterprise — more complex even than the failing auto companies. Once again, they’re being asked by their supremely self-confident president to suspend their disbelief. If the public doesn’t go along this time, the Obama phenomenon will experience the end of its heroic period.

Obama would have failed to achieve a goal he defined as paramount. Obama’s liberal base would be restive, just as he faces pressure to tack back to the center. Obama’s legislative accomplishments would look small compared with the vast accumulation of new debt — especially if a rising unemployment rate continues to discredit the stimulus. Obama would have been thwarted by the recalcitrance of reality, which — amid his fine words and intentions — he didn’t factor adequately into his plans.

This is why Obama must have something, anything, on health care. Without it, he enters a different phase. How does he manage as a mere politician against a headwind? How does he react when events aren’t tending his way and when words aren’t an easy way out? He’d rather not find out.

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