Extreme Makeover, Health-Care Edition

Barack Obama spent much of last year's presidential campaign trying to shake off the "elitist" label. He took pains to play down his Ivy League education and play up the more working-class elements of his background: "I wasn't born into a lot of money. I didn't have a trust fund. I was raised by a single mother with the help of my grandparents." Michelle Obama told the public that her husband snored and forgot to pick up his socks. At a photo-op in a blue-collar bar in Pennsylvania, the candidate ordered a Yuengling and asked, "Is it expensive, though? ... Wanna make sure it's not some designer beer or something."

During campaign season, it seems American voters want politicians -- presidential hopefuls in particular -- who are "just like us," people who don't dwell in an elite, Ivy League realm or possess other-worldly arrogance. Folksy connections are the medicine of those days. But as soon as we've elected someone, we expect that person to transform into a super-human. No longer are we interested in relating to them, we want to be saved by them. We want them to have all the solutions to our nation's biggest, most complex problems.

This outlandish expectation is so obvious now as the president struggles to get a health-care reform bill passed. But after a month of contentious, often ridiculous debate about the best way to make sure this country's citizens can actually afford to heal, Obama's approval ratings have dropped about 10 percentage points.

Anyone who is honest and sober will admit that no one person could possibly find a way to fix our horribly broken health-care system, not to mention convince the horribly misinformed public why the chosen fix will work. Yet Obama's approval ratings continue to slide. As David Blumenthal and James A. Morone attest in their new book, The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office, universal health care has bedeviled, eluded, or defeated every president for the last 75 years.

Last year, voters made clear that, after propping up the economy, reforming our health-care system should be the president's top priority. And at least in theory, Americans thought Obama was the person to complete those tasks. We elected him because we believed he could do the job more competently than 99 percent of the population. Because we thought he could make our country better by transcending the bipartisan gridlock and the problems that plague the federal government. In other words, we elected him because he is extraordinary.

But there is an unmistakable gap between extraordinary and superhuman. When we conflate the two, we are in danger of growing disillusioned with a leader before he or she has even had the chance to do the long, hard work of transforming a nation. It's inherently messy and necessarily slow because of the diversity of opinions and our system of checks and balances. It requires resilience, not perfection.

The problem is, we're conditioned to expect perfection. In an era of Extreme Makeover, Home Edition and The Biggest Loser, it seems that the American public wants Obama to assemble a team of supermodel-attractive, phony psychologists, physical trainers, and interior decorators and announce the quick fix -- a heartfelt solution for making all Americans healthier, richer, and better looking in just a matter of hours. That's simply not how our federal government works. Health care is not a reality television show; it is a historically determined, economically driven, and morally complex challenge -- one of the most critical of our time. After watching far too many red-faced citizens scream about socialism and "death panels," I'm wondering if we haven't let our pop culture bleed into our political worldview.

Passing health-care reform will require a civically educated American public willing to accept that it has elected the non-superhuman president it said it wanted during the campaign. I can't help but believe that part of why the health-care debate has been so contentious is because there are far too many easily agitated voters who don't actually understand the issues they are getting agitated about. So many of the most rabid opponents of public health care, for example, don't seem to realize that Medicare, a wildly popular victory for Lyndon Johnson, is federally run.

Strange as it sounds, Americans on both sides of the political fence seem defeatist -- as if there is only one right answer and the jerk that we elected back in November simply doesn't have it. Well, everyone's right on one account. The government doesn't have a perfect solution because there isn't one. Instead, it must tease out the strategy that will serve the most people at present with the least financial impact on future generations. It won't be perfect. It might not even be pretty, but 47 million uninsured Americans know it sure as hell is necessary.

It's time that we all took a deep breath and a realistic look at the options on the table -- the ways in which they will each push solutions and, yes, fall short -- and then calmly communicate our preference to our elected officials. It's also time that we supported President Obama to be a patient, critically thinking, morally driven leader, not a reality-show host or a miracle worker. Tantrum time is over. All of us need to grow up and accept that politics, like life, is full of imperfection -- but that doesn't mean that progress is impossible.