When President Obama took hold of, and asserted leadership over, the health-care debate last month with his address to a joint session of Congress, I argued that his speech needed to be "the start of a new chapter in the fight for equitable health care in America," as well as "the start of a public awareness campaign to make sure that Americans understand the truth about the plan without being misled by the distortions of its opponents," "the start of a concerted effort on the part of Democrats to pull together to get this done."
In short, what the president and other leading proponents of reform needed to do was both to boost public support for reform (as well as for the public option) by contrasting the truth with Republican lies and to unite Democrats behind a reform package that will bring meaningful change to America's dysfunctional and unjust health-care system. Obama, for his part, needed to engage in a serious, concerted public awareness effort and, on Capitol Hill, to twist some arms. Without him, and without his leadership, Democrats seem incapable of getting anything done.
The public awareness effort continues -- and, with it, solid poll numbers in support of a public option of some kind. And, it seems, the arm-twisting is well underway, too, as the Chicago Tribune reports:
Despite months of seeming ambivalence about creating a government health insurance plan, the Obama White House has launched an intensifying behind-the-scenes campaign to get divided Senate Democrats to take up some version of the idea in the weeks just ahead.
President Barack Obama has long advocated a so-called public option, while at the same time repeatedly expressing openness to other ways to offer consumers a potentially more affordable alternative to health plans sold by private insurers.
But now, senior administration officials are holding private meetings almost daily at the Capitol with senior Democratic staff to discuss ways to include a version of the public plan in the health care bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., plans to bring to the Senate floor later this month, according to senior Democratic congressional aides.
At the same time, Obama has been reaching out personally to rank-and-file Senate Democrats, telephoning more than a dozen lawmakers in the last week to press the case for action.
Administration officials are also distributing talking points and employing other campaign-style devices to rally support for passing a bill this fall.
The White House initiative, unfolding largely out of public view, follows months in which the president appeared to defer to senior lawmakers on Capitol Hill as they labored to put together gargantuan health care bills.
It also marks a critical test of Obama's command of the inside game in Washington in which deals are struck behind closed doors and wavering lawmakers are cajoled and pressured into supporting major legislation.
To me, the "seeming ambivalence" was part of the plan all along. As I put it responding to a Frank Rich column on Obama's supposed "squandered summer, Obama reached out to Republicans in the spirit of bipartisanship, and seemed to back Democratic efforts for put together a reform package with at least some Republican support, but must have known what was coming: Republicans, including the three Gang of Six "moderates," showed that they weren't serious about meaningful reform, coming out either against it altogether or in favor of such concessions as to water it down significantly, to the point of near-meaninglessness. Meanwhile, the right-wing opponents of reform, from the punditocracy down to the mob, descended ever further into "death panel" madness.
Obama is a smart guy. Surely he anticipated this. He must have known all along that reform would require united Democratic support. (Any Republican support on top, however unlikely, would just be a bonus.) Indeed, the main obstacle to passing meaningful reform is not Republican opposition/obstructionism but Democratic disunity. Divided, the Democrats are stuck and reform is doomed to watered-down compromise; united, they can make it happen for the good of the country.
What is clear now, it seems, is that President Obama is not just fully engaged but fully in command, assuming the leadership role that is his. And I think there may just be meaningful reform because of it -- as long as Democrats can put aside their differences and unite to do what is right. On that point, I remain skeptical. Even a popular Democratic president can only do so much with a party that has a long, sad history of caving in when the going gets tough, and of allowing the Republicans to prevail.
(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)