Obama Misreading Health Reform Gives Republican an Opportunity

Bipartisanship means the president must concede as well.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

For President Barack Obama, the upcoming summit on healthcare is a make-or-break event. Conceived of, no doubt, as a way to embarrass the Republicans into joining his crusade to fundamentally change the way the U.S. healthcare system operates, it may actually set the stage for the bill's total collapse. 

Part of this is the result of the White House misreading the tea leaves. A Gallup poll from late January shows the American people are not with Obama and the congressional Democrats on the issue. A majority of them--55 percent--want Obama, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to scrap the bill currently before Congress in favor of a new approach that could, potentially, garner the support of the Republicans. Only 39 percent of those surveyed said Obama, Reid, and Pelosi should continue down the path they have been on for nearly a year. 

In the short run, this argues against using any type of parliamentary trick to pass a bill before or during the summit, something that the political press has suggested may be in the works. In the longer term, it bolsters the position staked out by House Republican Leader John Boehner, who wants Obama to commit to a "clean slate" before the meeting starts, something he has thus far refused to do. Not only doesn't the White House seem to be in the mood to accept any preconditions, it gives no indication that it understands it needs to, that the political winds are shifting against it. 

In this, the Republicans have an opening to turn the summit into something that, for them, is a political winner. 

First there is the whole business of the call for greater bipartisanship, which some interpret as a demand the GOP join with Obama in implementing his vision for healthcare reform. There's not a lot of room to discuss and debate and compromise if, at the end of the day, the only option is to accept or reject the one draft that is on the table. Here, Obama can and should make the first move by offering up a list of those things in the current House or Senate bill he is willing to abandon in the name of reaching a bipartisan agreement. As he himself said shortly after the summit was announced, "I'm willing to move off of some of the preferences of my party in order to meet [the Republicans] halfway." 

Even if he does that, however, he still must come to grips with the problem that the summit he has called keeps the discussion in Washington. The nation is engaged in this debate in ways that have been seldom seen before. To most Americans, Washington is not the solution to the nation's problems. Washington is the problem. A Washington-based solution is not the best way to overcome that particular hurdle. 

Yet the White House has invited to the February 25 summit only those Democrats and Republicans who constitute what could be called the congressional healthcare leadership. 

This gives the Republicans the opportunity to elevate the discussion into a national healthcare conversation, something that could be easily accomplished over the Internet and something that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich expects to do through his Center for Health Transformation. 

A "live blog" during the summit would give the nation's governors, state legislators, healthcare practitioners and providers, and anyone else potentially affected by the kind of changes Obama contemplates for the healthcare system--which is to say everyone--the opportunity to voice their opinions in real time about the kind of changes being discussed in the meeting. 

Finally, there is the issue of what reforms are going to be discussed. Despite the "Party of No" rhetoric, the GOP has put forward a number of proposals to address the problems that currently exist within the American healthcare system. Talking about the bill current pending in Congress simply does not go far enough. The Republicans need to make sure there is plenty of room for new and different ideas at the table. They can--and should--propose new ideas, things they are willing to support if Obama and the congressional Democrats are willing to come along. And, if the president truly wishes to adopt a bipartisan approach to healthcare reform, he should be willing to. 

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