By Don Klein
August was a bad month for the health care debate and for President Obama. I gather the White House staff is breathing easier now that it is over. But should they feel relief now that it’s September? I don’t think so unless the president changes his ways.
So far, the way Obama has handled the health care issue is hardly reassuring. I’m not certain he has it in him to do much better.
That’s a shame because Obama, the oft-described 21st Century reincarnation of Franklin D. Roosevelt, needs to take some lessons on passing tough legislation from the old master himself. Perhaps Obama has too high an opinion of himself to deign to take lessons from the greatest American president since Lincoln. We hope not.
FDR knew there was no real bipartisanship in Washington when you want to shakeup the establishment and try something new or revolutionary. Obama apparently still grasps at that silly straw. There never was an intension on the part of the Republicans to work with Democrats on health care reform. They just payed along to delay the process, offering endless amendments and succeeded in leaving the Democrats panting for breath over the issue because Obama failed to take charge the way FDR did during the New Deal.
Before an audience in Madison Square Garden in 1936, FDR called his opposition for what it was. He laid it out without mincing words. "We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering, They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs." he said.
"We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred," he exclaimed.
Can you imagine Obama saying anything liked that today? Did FDR’s comments sit well with the electorate? You might conclude it did. FDR won every state in the union except Maine and Vermont in the most lopsided presidential election in history that year. I am not saying that speech was the sole stimulant for his one-sided victory, rather it was his wide-ranging programs for the people and his fighting style that did.
Obama has similar circumstances with programs that appeal to ordinary people, exemplified by the broad appeal of the health care bill but he hasn’t shown any semblance of the fighting nature that successful presidents like FDR exhibited.
President Harry S. Truman, a virtual unknown outside of Washington when he succeeded FDR in death, caught the imagination and excitement of the nation when he launched the famous 1948 "Give ‘Em Hell Harry" campaign.
Commentator Michael Lind writes online "Can anyone imagine President Barack Obama saying anything like that?" He goes on "As the Republican minority, backed by an avalanche of special-interest money, mobilizes to thwart the health reform agenda of the Democratic majority, maybe the time has come for ‘Give-'Em-Hell Barry.’"
Lind goes on, "The most dangerous deficit that the United States faces is not the budget deficit or the trade deficit. It is the Democrats' demagogy deficit. Franklin Roosevelt, looking down from that Hyde Park in the sky, would not be surprised that conservatives are seeking to channel populist anger and anxiety, not against the Wall Street elites who wrecked the economy, but against reformers promoting healthcare reform and economic security for ordinary people."
As Roosevelt told his audience in 1936, "It is an old strategy of tyrants to delude their victims into fighting their battles for them." That’s what has been happening these days as Obama blithely chases the unreachable bipartisanship balloon. FDR would be shocked by the inability of his party to mobilize the public on behalf of reform.
Even Obama’s supporters are beginning to wonder if he is the leader we need at this point in time. They wonder how George Bush with an even less of a majority in the Senate managed to push through much criticized tax cuts and the unpopular war in Iraq while Obama can’t even keep his party behind him on the health care issue. It is time for the president to step up to the plate and start slugging.
During last year’s primary campaign, Hillary Clinton charged that Obama was a man of great words but of little experience to lead the nation. The argument was that campaigns are poetry but running the government is prose. We are starting to wonder if Obama is simply a great poet.
Now is the time to take the gloves off and to inform the intransigent Democrats in the Senate that a health bill without a public option will mean the end of the Democrat majority in Congress. That their jobs are at risk. He should offer deals to those in his own party who are willing to bargain away the public option for fictitious GOP support that will never evolve. It is time to twist arms, a la Lyndon B. Johnson.
As far as the Republicans are concerned, Obama should forget seeking their support. Single out one or two or three who might be marginal on the issue, like the two senators from Maine, and offer them presidential windfalls that would persuade them to crossover to his side of the issue.
The sad fact is Obama wasted valuable time when the Democrats had the numbers, before Ted Kennedy’s death, and now lost the 60 votes they need for cloture. Now they must make the best they can without further delay. Oh if Obama just had a little of the pluck of FDR or the zeal of HST.