It's Time for Presidential Leadership

03/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The people of Massachusetts spoke last week, but decoding what they said depends on where you stand. Some are reading the message as opposition to health care reform, and indeed, a significant percentage of the voters said their vote was intended to stop the current health care reform legislation. But that doesn't necessarily mean they're against health care reform.

Two findings stand out in a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University poll released on Saturday. First, 68% of those voting in the Massachusetts special election, including a majority of those who voted for winner Scott Brown, said they support the Massachusetts universal health-care plan enacted several years ago by Republican Governor Mitt Romney and the Democratic State Legislature. Second, among Brown voters who said that the health-care reform effort in Washington played an important role in their vote, the most frequently cited reasons were concerns about the process, including closed-door dealing and a lack of bi-partisanship.

From my perspective, the message is clear. President Obama campaigned on a promise to end the closed-door dealing and the lack of bi-partisanship. Instead, he has maintained a "hands off" attitude in the face of ugly Congressional deal-making. The result, predictable when you're dealing with 535 individual agendas, has been even more partisan rancor and divisiveness than before Obama took office. It is time for the President to act like the President and seize control of the issue. And the State of the Union speech on Wednesday is the perfect time to do so.

Here, in essence, is what I believe the President should say about health care reform. His excellent speech writers can spruce up the language and find examples to humanize what he says:

Last Tuesday the people of Massachusetts spoke. They told us that they want the partisan rancor to end so that our government can do the people's business rather than the business of the insurance and drug companies. I've heard them. And as we work passionately this year to increase jobs and decrease the crushing debt we've been forced to incur because of the economic disaster we inherited, I will continue my efforts to reach out to those in the Congress who put the nation's health above party loyalty.

But I will not walk away from health care reform. It was a signature issue in my campaign for President, and the American people expect us to deliver on our promises. We have the best health care system in the world -- for the rich. But, too many people are uninsured. The costs of health care are too high and are growing too fast. And even if you have health insurance, you're never sure whether a serious illness might bankrupt you because your insurance company claims that the illness is not covered, or that it arises from a pre-existing condition, or that there are limits to your coverage in the fine print.

The truth is -- and we all know it -- that we cannot bring down the debt, we cannot create a healthy economy, and we cannot end the anxiety that people have about their health care if we don't do health care reform -- and do it now. We are close. Both supporters and opponents of the health care reform bills passed by the House and the Senate agree on 85% of what's in these bills.

We agree that people should not be denied coverage if they have a pre-existing condition.

We agree that people should not lose their health insurance if they lose their job.

(human interest example)

We agree that the 47 million people who are uninsured, many of whom are uninsured because they've lost their jobs through no fault of their own, must be covered.

(human interest example)

And we agree that the costs of health care must be brought under control.

(human interest example, small business example)

We also know that many of the key elements of health care reform are inter-connected and by themselves cannot work. For example, if all we do is force insurance companies to insure everyone without regard to pre-existing conditions, insurance premiums will sky-rocket. Therefore, to keep premiums down, we must increase the pool of customers and find ways to cut costs. (other examples)

If we agree on so much, how can we face the American people and say we just couldn't get it done? So, today I have issued an invitation to Congressional leaders in both parties to convene tomorrow at the White House and to keep talking until we reach an agreement that can pass with bi-partisan support. In the interest of transparency, at the conclusion of our negotiations each day, we will inform the public of the progress we are making. Not everyone will be happy with the outcome. Some pain and some sacrifice likely will be required from many of us. But the American people are demanding that we end the charged rhetoric on both sides of the aisle and govern. I mean to respond to their demand and to respond now. I challenge each of you to conclude this year-long battle, and to pass bi-partisan health care reform legislation within the next month so that we can deliver on the change that the American people need and want and move on to the other issues that are justifiably fueling their frustration.

Admittedly, this is a high risk strategy, and agreement may not be possible. But it has several advantages for the President:

  • It allows him to seize the initiative and display leadership.
  • It responds to his campaign rhetoric about changing the way things are done in Washington, D.C.
  • It puts the Republicans on the spot, and if the effort fails, he has a campaign issue.
  • It's the only conceivable way that meaningful health care reform legislation will pass this year. And we all know that this may be the last chance to address the health care crisis before it bankrupts our nation.

Michael R. Wenger is a Senior Fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.