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How They Did It

The other Jonathan at TNR has put together an epic, behind-the-scenes look at health care reform and how it passed. The piece is so comprehensive, it’s going to be released in five installments (though if you’re a member of TNR Society you can download it all here now—and if you’d like to join, here’s the registration site). The first section (which goes live at midnight) dives right into the middle of the debate, in August, when many of Obama’s advisors recommended he scale back his ambitions: 

All week, the group had debated whether to scale back the reform effort. Now, a decision point had come, according to several people who were in the room. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he couldn’t keep telling reporters that there was progress on reform when, in fact, it plainly wasn’t happening. Counselor David Axelrod, who viewed health care as a political graveyard, presented a stark view of the president’s falling poll numbers. Axelrod didn’t argue that it was time to abandon comprehensive reform, but Vice President Joe Biden and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel did. Make a quick deal that would extend insurance coverage to parents and children, they urged, and put off broader action until later. Neither man had substantive qualms with comprehensive reform. They simply saw it sucking the political life out of the new presidency, just like it did to Bill Clinton more than a decade ago

[But] Obama had come to view this debate as a proxy for the deepest, most systemic crises facing the country. It was a test, really: Could the country still solve its most vexing problems? If he abandoned comprehensive reform, he would be conceding that the United States was, on some level, ungovernable. Besides, several aides recall him saying, “I feel lucky.”

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