Not long after the general presidential election began last year, some momentary fluctuation in the polls led to a fevered round of hand-wringing on the left. Our nominee is letting it slip away! people cried. He ought to shift his strategy, change this, alter that! Then a photo of Barack Obama at his convention speech began to circulate through e-mails and blogs, showing the candidate looking strong and resolute. "Everyone chill the f*** out," the caption read in bold letters. "I GOT THIS." And he did.
For all the marveling at Obama's rhetorical skill, it was his political skill that got him to the White House, most important, his ability to see the whole field of the campaign and keep focused on the long-term goal without getting bogged down in the day-to-day ups and downs of polls and the news media's obsession with distractions and minutiae. Today, with the health-care debate coming toward its end, progressives once again are nervous and agitated, wondering if the victory for which they yearned so long is slipping away.
To seize back the debate, the president will give a prime-time address to a joint session of Congress. Obama's speech may not change the entire debate, but it is the bell signaling that we have reached the final lap.
Many people have noted the parallel with another speech to Congress about health-care reform, one delivered by Bill Clinton on Sept. 22, 1993. Clinton's speech was seen at the time as a home run -- he described the weaknesses of the system, laid out fundamental principles, and told the stories of ordinary people who needed reform. The speech also included a key visual element: Clinton held up a new insurance card meant to symbolize the security Americans would have. And it ended with a stirring call to do the right thing for the future:
It's hard to believe that there was once a time in this century when that kind of fear gripped old age, when retirement was nearly synonymous with poverty and older Americans died in the street. That's unthinkable today, because over a half a century ago Americans had the courage to change, to create a Social Security System that ensures that no Americans will be forgotten in their later years.
Forty years from now, our grandchildren will also find it unthinkable that there was a time in this country when hardworking families lost their homes, their savings, their businesses, lost everything simply because their children got sick or because they had to change jobs. Our grandchildren will find such things unthinkable tomorrow if we have the courage to change today. This is our chance. This is our journey. And when our work is done, we will know that we have answered the call of history and met the challenge of our time.
Had Clinton passed reform, the speech would be remembered as one of the key moments of the battle. Instead, it is now cited as evidence of the limited power of presidential rhetoric. But there was an important difference between then and now: Clinton's speech happened at the beginning of the debate -- before that year's version of "death panels" and "socialist takeovers" wiped it from memory -- while Obama's is happening near the end.
Whatever the content of Obama's speech, we know that there are really three audiences for it (and just about everything he does between now and whenever we get to a vote). Obama needs all of them, because any one of them has the power to kill reform. White House aides have said the president will get more specific about what he will and won't accept in the final bill, but it is not his preferences, but those of these three groups, that really matter.
The first group is one that has only recently emerged as an actual player in this debate: progressives in the House. Led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, they have grown increasingly emphatic in recent days that they will not accept any bill that does not include a public option. A little over a month ago, 57 progressive House members signed a letter to this effect, and the co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus, Lynn Woolsey of California and Raul Grijalva of New Mexico recently sent a letter to the president reiterating the threat. If they follow through, no bill without a public option could survive.
The second group is conservative Democrats in the Senate, who are being much more cagey about what they will accept. Mostly from conservative states, these senators could kill reform if they chose, by siding with Republicans to filibuster the bill and prevent it from coming to a vote. What's most notable about this group is how they've been keeping their cards hidden. They plainly want the bill to be cheaper, which means they want health care to be less affordable for Americans (briefly: every dollar you take out of the bill is a dollar taken out of either Medicaid for poor Americans, or the subsidies the plan would offer to the middle- and lower-middle-class Americans so they could afford to buy the coverage they'll be required to get).
They also don't like the public option. OpenLeft has been keeping a whip count on where Senate Democrats stand on the public option, and what it makes clear is how careful they're being in their public utterances. The only one who has actually made a clear statement of substantive opposition to it is Joe Lieberman (who, if you'll recall, was supposed to be wonderfully progressive on everything except national security issues).
Yet none of these Democrats has said unequivocally, "I will join the Republicans to filibuster any bill that contains a public option." That is the only question that matters, since a bill with a public option almost certainly would be able to get to 51 votes in the Senate, but might or might not be able to get to the 60 votes it needs to break the Republican filibuster.
That number -- 60 -- brings us to the last of the audiences Obama must appeal to. It's a group of one, Republican senator Olympia Snowe of Maine. Because of Ted Kennedy's passing (and until the Massachusetts legislature acts to put the procedure in place for Gov. Deval Patrick to quickly name a replacement), the Democrats actually have only 59 votes to overcome that Republican filibuster, even if they hold every last one of their members. Snowe is the only Republican who is even considering allowing a vote on health-care reform, much less voting for the bill.
So what does Snowe want? As best as can be ascertained, she's not adamantly opposed to anything, even the public option, but wants everything to be moderated -- less money here, a "trigger" for the public option there (see here for the best description of Snowe's preferences). In other words, she may well be willing to sign on to a good bill but would also be willing to sign on to a bad bill, or maybe no bill at all.
Can Obama arrive at a solution that satisfies progressive Democrats in the House, conservative Democrats in the Senate, and Olympia Snowe all at the same time? His speech on Wednesday will no doubt attempt to weave the values and desires of all three together into a cord that pulls reform across the finish line. If he can do it, it would be quite a feat.