In a recent post, I argued that Obama has been at fault for standing aside too long on healthcare reform. Andrew Sullivan takes me to task, saying it is Congress’s job to legislate, and praising Obama’s speech on the subject in September, which Andrew regards as proof that Obama has been closely engaged throughout.
Yes, it is Congress’s job to legislate. Obama was right not to draft a law and then present it to Congress saying, pass this. But there was a middle way between a Hillary-like fait accompli and failing to exercise any meaningful guidance and supervision. The public’s low opinion of Congress made it essential for Obama to act as a chief sponsor of the legislation. It was not enough for him to say, just give me something to sign. Voters wanted more from him than that.
Andrew asks if I was alive back in September: if I was, how could I have failed to notice that excellent speech? Andrew has so many opinions to ventilate, and so little time to think about them, I do not rebuke him for failing to see whether I had said anything at the time. This would have taken a full two minutes. In fact I said I thought it was an excellent speech. I praised it effusively. But I also said this:
All in all, I think he made the case for reform about as well as it could be made.
But what difference is it going to make? I wrote down three questions before the speech. Did he take charge of the process? Did he explain what “the plan” actually is? Did he settle the row over the public option? He should have done all these things already. Tonight I thought he made some progress in each case, but without answering any of the questions definitively.
He talked about “the plan I’m announcing tonight”–seeming to assert his ownership, and at the same time declaring a new start for the process. Good. But there is still no detailed White House proposal, and the action now moves back to Congress. Obama’s “plan”, as he described it, was a recapitulation of bullet points from the proposals already in play. On substance, in other words, little was new.
One speech, however eloquent, is still just one speech. I hoped it would mark the start of real engagement in the design and advocacy of a particular reform strategy. Instead, he disappeared for another five months.