Mr. President, Please: A Little Less Oprah, a Little More LBJ

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We're really in trouble if Barack Obama thinks his road to the pantheon of presidential history is getting Joe Lieberman to giggle again.

You know, the Lieberman who campaigned against Obama in 2008. The Lieberman who lost his own Democratic primary then waged an independent campaign to beat the Democratic nominee. The Lieberman who talked the Senate leadership into keeping his committee chairmanship with promises that he would give them this ridiculous "filibuster-proof" majority, so they could pass all the great change Obama promised in that campaign against McCain and himself.

It's the type of three-stooges political script that keeps Jon Stewart in business.

When Obama summoned Lieberman to the White House on Tuesday, I thought "Finally. Shades of Lyndon Johnson." There was going to be some old-fashioned arm-twisting or a political skeleton secretly exhumed. Obama was going to play hardball, and it was going to be fun to watch Lieberman get his comeuppance.

Instead, we got Skip Gates 2.0.

This time, instead of playing Dolly Madison to a racist cop, the president was just hosting an old insurance toady. Unfortunately, it's proving to be The Obama Method. Want to know how to get this president's attention? Want to see him set his convictions aside and engage in a political version of Kabuki theatre? Disagree with him or oppose him, and he's putty in your hands.

You'll get an invitation to the White House, a beer or diet coke and, if Lieberman was telling the truth afterward, a surreal thank you for promising to support something that is fundamentally against what this president stands for. Here's a recap of the crucial point in the meeting, according to The New York Times.

"What's happening is not any fun for me," Mr. Lieberman said. Mr. Brown, who has championed the public option, turned to Mr. Lieberman and said, "You know Joe, it's not fun for us, either." At that point Mr. Obama stepped-in. "Why don't we all begin to have some fun? Let's pass this bill."

I'm not kidding. That was it. Can you picture LBJ, Truman, Nixon, Reagan or either Roosevelt offering that response to one whiny senator who was pushing him around like that on the national stage?

Obama needs to call in Harry Reid and tell him to restore the single payer plan and/or the public option. He needs to demand the Medicare expansion, which can be done with just 50 senators, anyway. He also needs to threaten publicly to veto any bill that comes to his desk with a mandatory purchase clause and none of those consumer options.

If Lieberman wants to stand in the way of an up-or-down vote in the Senate on historic health care reform let him. But Obama has got to stop letting Lieberman and others who disagree with him push him around. He is the president of the United States, damn it. And the bill that is taking shape now is not historic reform.

Unfortunately, Obama has launched a media offensive - not against Republicans or the insurance cartels that give them zillions of dollars at election time - but against Democrats who don't want a law that makes criminals out of middle class Americans unless they buy insurance in the existing market: no single-payer program, no public option, no expansion of Medicare to people in their mid-50s.

They've painted a big bullseye on Howard Dean, who made the progressive case in an op-ed in Wednesday's Washington Post. Dean's opposition to this is serious, because Obama knows he was articulating the view of about 100 House members who can't accept the Senate bill.

That's the bill that would force you to pay a monthly premium to a company that can use up to 30 percent of its revenues to pay six- and seven- figure salaries to top executives, hoards of lobbyists, and pay regular quarterly dividends to share-holders.

That's the bill that would give those companies anti-trust exemptions to share data and set non-competitive rates, allow them to charge seniors three times the premiums they charge younger customers, and to gouge people with preexisting conditions with rates as high as 50 percent higher than others, which of course hits the most vulnerable - the poor and elderly - hardest.

I'm not always a fan of Keith Olberman's commentary, but he was dead on last night. I watched it several times to parse it, and it got rhetorically and morally stronger each time.

My old friend and colleague Molly Ivins, who died of cancer at 62, wrote in her final column that "We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action... Raise hell."

She was writing about the war in Iraq, but I knew her well enough to think she would feel the same way about this situation with health care. It's time to raise hell - and maybe get invited to the White House for a beer.