After the health care summit: Obama's Bill Clinton moment

The summit was Obama's last big chance at public persuasion on Democratic health care. Now he needs to cut a deal that will necessarily disappoint liberals in his party.

Thursday’s healthcare summit was President Obama’s last big chance to persuade Americans – and Republicans – of the soundness of the Democratic plans.

He’s been talking healthcare for a year now. But despite his oratorical skills, despite his logic and remarkable command of the facts, public support has waned for Democratic legislation that would cover an additional 30 million-plus Americans. 

Poll after poll shows that more Americans now disapprove of the Democratic plan than favor it (though “the plan” exists only as separate House and Senate versions, with a White House blend offered earlier this week). 

Not that people don’t see the need for reform or want to put it off for very long. But many Americans worry about the scope and the $1 trillion cost. And they worry even more about jobs.

The all-day summit was billed as a chance for Republicans and Democrats to come together “and focus on where we agree,” the president said at the summit. Indeed, everyone could agree on the problem: that spiraling healthcare costs endanger the fiscal health of the nation and the physical health of its citizens. And they could agree on several paths to reform. 

But the two sides largely stood their ground, with Democrats defending their plan as urgent and necessarily comprehensive, and the Republicans calling it a government takeover and urging the president to start over and work piecemeal on ideas they put forward. 

As the host and moderator, the president was solicitous and engaging with the other side, but also feisty. He carried on in a businesslike manner – but also a political one. He sparred with his former campaign rival John McCain, but later agreed with one of Senator McCain’s criticisms about a special deal for Florida seniors. 

He tried to deflect Republican characterizations of the plan. What the GOP might call a government takeover, he countered, is simply ensuring minimum standards. Mandated coverage is the only way to share the costs and responsibility of broader coverage. And while Republicans point to a $1 trillion price tag, the Congressional Budget Office says the Senate plan will reduce the deficit by that much over 20 years. 

But the president has made these points before. Many times. Perhaps some Americans besides journalists and policy wonks watched the televised summit in its entirety, and were convinced. Certainly the Republicans in the room did not appear to have been persuaded.

For Obama to have any success, he would now need to cease his effort at public persuasion, and work toward a deal. That means taming the liberal wing of the Democratic party and crossing swords with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It also means reaching out to Senate Republicans after the C-SPAN cameras have stopped filming and bringing on board a handful (he’s unlikely to get more). 

This is Mr. Obama’s Bill Clinton moment. It’s his opportunity to get healthcare reform the way Mr. Clinton helped pass welfare reform – through compromise with both parties. There is no other way if he wants the majority of Americans to back such a momentous change.

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