[Viewpoint] Obama and the health care issueAmerican eyes and ears will pay careful attention to President Barack Obama on Wednesday as he delivers his State of the Union address following last week’s surprising Republican Senate victory in Massachusetts.
Before that election, Obama had planned to make the last-minute pitch for the ambitious health reform bill and outline other major plans for the new year.
But he won’t likely display his usual savvy confidence as he faces the nation and the joint Congress as the Democrats’ once filibuster-proof margin of 60 votes in the Senate is likely now to vanish.
A little known Republican state senator was elected last week to fill the Senate seat long-held by the late Edward Kennedy in a traditionally Democratic-leaning state, taking the vital 60th vote out of the Democrats’ hands. Without that margin in the Senate, President Obama and Democrats face an even greater uphill battle to gain agreement from both houses of Congress to pass the legislation.
If the bill fails, so too can President’s Obama’s leadership.
Health care reform legislation that would cover most of the uninsured Americans - numbering more than 46 million - is something no other president has dared to undertake. Despite the essential goal, Obama’s health care proposal raised controversy over several issues: a mandate that would make everyone buy policies, federal insurance, subsidies, taxing and a clash with existing coverage. It also exacerbated the divide among different classes, interest groups and political parties.
The failure of the health bill will bode ominously for his other legislation on financial reform, immigration reform, student loans and measures to address clean energy development and climate change.
With midterm elections ahead, the president and Democrats fear they may be heading toward the same path of former Democratic President Bill Clinton. After Clinton failed to pass a health care reform bill, Democrats lost control over the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
President Obama won’t likely allow Democrats to use political maneuvering to advance the Senate bill. Nor will he easily give up on the bill. The large-scale measure to offer affordable health coverage to nearly all Americans is as much in the public interest as creating jobs.
If he loses the bill, he may turn aggressive toward Wall Street and seek more stringent reform measures for the financial industry. But that legislation is also likely to hit a Republican wall. No president will be able to get his job done with the Congress in such gridlock.
The Obama administration said it will “stay the course” to push for more affordable insurance policies. But the administration will have to come up with a quick action plan if it wants to achieve a breakthrough.
First of all, he would have to show his prowess to win the hearts of moderate Republicans - especially in the Senate - in a polarized Congress. Democrats have had the upper hand in lawmaking so far with a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives and 60 seats in the 100-seat Senate. But while Democratic leaders had won support of three Republican senators in economic-rescue legislation, the health care reform measure failed to garner even one vote from Republican members in the Senate.
Obama should, however, soldier on with his moderate statesmanship on the policy front. For instance, he backed down on including federal insurance policy in the new health care package fearing a wasteful ideological debate. Unlike a presidential candidate promising a rosy future, the administration must struggle with everyday realities. Obama should find a moderated balance of views, offering policies with reason and discretion.
He must do what he does best - use his winning appeal to persuade the people that the health care reform has their interest at heart and seek their support.
A leader should try to get closer with the public if he finds that a policy he believes is imperative to the country’s future lacks popular support. The more popular support he has, the easier he will find it to gain votes from the legislative branch.
President Obama has been strenuously selling his health care policy since September, but the public remains as divided as ever.
Like he himself confessed, change can indeed be “so painfully slow in coming.” But if he stands his ground while he painstakingly tries to have others join in, he may at last see the birth of a changed era.
This story should not be so alien to us living across the Pacific.
President Obama’s leadership battle reverberates with a valuable message to our leader who has his own battle on this field.
*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Park Chan-wook