Missing Leadership

John Aravosis at AmericaBlog raises a point that nails home something I’ve been thinking a lot lately – that the White House is failing to provide the leadership necessary to ensure a good piece of healthcare reform legislation passes both chambers of Congress.

The president still doesn’t realize that he’s now the president. He apparently thinks, according to White House officials, that he has no role in influencing the public debate on health care reform. It’s all Congress. This is the same argument the White House is using to justify its inaction on Obama’s gay rights promises – it’s Congress’ domain, not his.

Privately, White House aides have communicated to the House leadership that the onus on changing minds about the public plan is on Congress, not on the president. [Quoting a Marc Ambinder post]

Why is that? Why is the onus on Congress to change the public’s mind on health care reform when we’re doing health care reform because it was Obama’s top priority for his entire presidency? The president has the bully pulpit, not Congress. Since when does the president abdicate responsibility on leading the nation towards specific policy goals? We are now seeing a trend whereby this White House refuses to take a position, refuses to take the lead, on issue after issue that during the campaign the president claimed he would fiercely advocate. The White House has decided that it’s not worth sticking the president’s neck out, using his political capital, on the number one priority of his entire presidency. (We saw some of this already yesterday.) That should give everyone pause.

It’s hard to overstate how dangerous this line of behavior is for the chances of healthcare reform, let alone the longer term success of the Obama administration. Healthcare was and is the paramount issue of Barack Obama’s presidency. He campaigned on it, Democrats in Congress campaigned on it, and since the election this first year in office has been described, rightly or wrongly, as “the moment” for healthcare reform.

It is an utter failure of leadership that Obama and his staff think he can avoid using political capital in this fight. There has been plenty said about Obama’s falling poll numbers. What does the White House think political capital is made of? What sort of shelf life do they expect their massive electoral mandate of November 2008 has, particularly after Wall Street bailouts and failures in energy and healthcare legislation?

Most of all, how can Obama remain neutral on “changing minds about the public plan”? This is the central piece of healthcare reform that he himself introduced to the national debate during the presidential campaign. It would not have prominence without his insistence on it. And now, as its fate hangs in the balance, he is washing his hands of responsibility for getting it through, while his advisers savage the left for thinking it’s a good idea?

We are where we are today in the healthcare fight because there has been an absolute lack of leadership coming from the White House. Ambinder’s line, quoted above, shows the reason. The White House thinks it is solely up to Congress to pass legislation that does what the President has said is important for years.  Obama, Rahm, et alia just don’t think the President’s job is to lead on his signature issue.

The cost of this leadership vacuum could likely be the public option, though it’s certainly possible that it will lead to there being no healthcare reform legislation this year at all. For while getting 60 votes in the Senate has been the most critical hurdle for politicians and commentators to obsess about in Washington DC, there also need to be 218 votes in the House. Right now something with a public option cannot pass the Senate and something without one cannot pass the House. One way or the other, the White House is going to have to put its foot down and force Democrats in one chamber to accept something they currently do not want. The question will be, does Obama want to fight 10 conservative Democratic votes in the Senate or 100 progressive votes in House for their votes. And which group is most likely to budge under the pressure of an as-of-now popular Democratic president?

If I were a betting man, I would wager that Obama and Rahm will put pressure on House progressives to drop their insistence on the public option and will, through threats and moral pleading, get the House to accept significantly worse legislation than all three House committees have already created. But I hope that I am wrong.

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