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Obama in the Balance

How does this president handle a crisis? Thus far, the answer is not at all encouraging. The current crisis is the election in Massachusetts of Scott Brown, now the forty-first Republican senator. His arrival in Washington has sent Democrats into panic mode--fearful that they too will be swallowed by a seething electorate--and caused many of them to flee in the other direction from health care reform. In short, Barack Obama faces a moment where his presidency just might collapse or, rather, risks heading into a wilderness where it would accomplish next to none of its ambitious goals.

For generations, health care reform has been a signature cause of liberalism--a campaign to redress a great moral failing of our democratic capitalist order, and a unique failing of our system when judged next to its peers in the industrialized world. Never before has a Democratic president inherited more propitious circumstances for advancing reform to fruition. And, although liberals might have griped as reform plodded its way through the various fiefdoms of the Senate, a monumental bill ultimately emerged, an impressive work of consensus that survived the interest-group ringer and the annoying maneuverings of Senators Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman. Congress was one or two perfunctory roll-call votes away from sending a bill to Obama’s desk. That’s when Brown won his upset, instantly making the distance the bill needed to travel to the president’s desk seem unbearably immense.

But to squander this opportunity--after such intricate negotiation and so much expenditure of political capital--makes no rational sense. Abandoning health care now wouldn’t render Democrats any less vulnerable. They have already taken tough votes in support of the measure; they just wouldn’t have any tangible achievement to show for those votes. Defeat would set back the chances for meaningful reform for a generation. What Democratic politician would ever set foot in that graveyard again? And, after health care has stalled the rest of the president’s agenda for a large swath of his first year, what grand accomplishment would he have to show for his time in office? The bill’s defeat would rightly send his liberal base into a fit of depression--and it would send a dangerous message to his enemies that he will shy away from a fight on even his top priorities.

Health care reform must not be allowed to die--for the sake of the president and his party, and, more importantly, for the sake of the many millions of uninsured and everyone else who suffers under this terrible system. Yet, as we write, Obama has not yet risen to meet this existential threat to his presidency. The response of his White House has been slow-footed, at best, and thoroughly confused by any objective measure. With so much anxiety pouring over the Democratic Party, only strong presidential leadership can salvage things. We haven’t yet seen anything like that. Let’s set aside the fact that the White House should have been more alert to the impending loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat. By the time Scott Brown gave his victory speech, Obama’s advisers had a good grasp of their downward fortunes but seemed to have no strategy for reversing them. On election night, the airwaves were depressingly free of the presidential surrogates who should have been calming nerves and suggesting that this defeat would do nothing to forestall reform. Days passed and that message still had not arrived. Behind the scenes, the White House was floating a scaled-back alternative. All the while, the initiative continued to drift further away.

And now, we have arrived at a point where we can take the ultimate measure of Barack Obama. For much of the health care debate, he has been a relative bystander. This stance may have been the right approach for various stretches of the legislative grind. But now, we must see his mettle. Is he capable of asserting his will? Can he use his vaunted powers of communication to explain the virtues of reform? He must take ownership of the process and strong-arm the House, so that it comes to its senses and passes the Senate’s version of the bill; and he must strong-arm the Senate, so that it promises to improve the bill through the budget reconciliation process. If Democrats are worth anything as a party, they will rally around their president. As much as any other issue, health care reform is their raison d’etre. This is hardly an irremediable situation for Barack Obama. But, for the first time, we are nervous that he isn’t up to the task.

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