More than anything else, Barack Obama’s political rise was defined by the promise that he would usher in an era of post-partisanship after the bitter divisiveness that scarred Washington during the Bush years.
“The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states,” Obama famously lamented when he burst onto the national scene during his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
On the night he was elected Senator that November, when Republicans retained control of all branches of government, Obama said that his “understanding of the Senate is that you need 60 votes to get something significant to happen, which means that Democrats and Republicans have to ask the question, do we have the will to move an American agenda forward, not a Democratic or Republican agenda forward?”
In 2006, he tried to disabuse his “fellow progressives” of the “notion that we should function sort of like Karl Rove where we identify our core base, we throw ’em red meat, we get a 50-plus-one victory.”
While running for president in 2007, he told the Concord Monitor that “We are not going to pass universal health care with a 50-plus one strategy.”
Instead, candidate Obama talked about building a “movement for change” in which citizens get organized and take an active role in agitating their lawmakers.
But any chance Obama had of living up to his well-honed image as a post-partisan leader was tossed aside on Wednesday, as the president urged Democrats in Congress to disregard public opinion and ram through his health care bill using a parliamentary maneuver that doesn’t require bipartisan support.
As it turns out, employing Rovian tactics in the pursuit of his liberal agenda is no vice.
In the past week, President Obama staged a series of what historian Daniel Boorstin dubbed “pseudo-events,” from a televised health care summit to the release of a letter offering token policy gestures to Republicans. The process culminated with the inevitable announcement that he would attempt to enact the most sweeping legislation since the Great Society with the once-poisonous “50-plus-one” strategy.
In his remarks, Obama pushed the argument that using the reconciliation process, which is intended for budgetary matters and not for sweeping legislation, is okay because they’d only be using the procedure to make changes, not to pass the whole bill. “Reform has already passed the House with a majority,” Obama said. “It has already passed the Senate with a supermajority of 60 votes.” The problem is, those were two different bills. The House won’t be able to pass the Senate bill unless it’s changed, and thus passing the underlying overhaul of the nation’s health care system is still contingent upon the use of reconciliation.
Obama also tried to suggest that there was nothing out of the ordinary about this use of reconciliation, saying that health care legislation “deserves the same kind of up or down vote that was cast on welfare reform, that was cast on the Children’s Health Insurance Program, that was used for COBRA health coverage for the unemployed, and, by the way, for both Bush tax cuts — all of which had to pass Congress with nothing more than a simple majority.”
Yet in virtually all of those cases, the programs passed with strong bipartisan support — welfare reform passed with 78 votes in the Senate, S-CHIP passed with 85 votes and COBRA passed by a simple voice vote. The first round of Bush tax cuts in 2001 garnered 58 votes — but 12 of those votes were from Democrats. Even the much more contentious second round of Bush tax cuts in 2003 received two Democratic votes before passing with 50 (plus Vice President Dick Cheney).
But comparisons to the tax legislation isn’t really fair, because the tax cuts expire at the end of this year, while Obama wants to use reconciliation to create a permanent new entitlement that would effectively put the government in charge of one-sixth of the nation’s economy.
Obama’s use of reconciliation is also much more likely to be explosive because the underlying bill it is being used to pass is overwhelmingly opposed by the public. That was not the case in prior instances of reconciliation.
As USA Today reported on August 3, 1996, Clinton was forced to sign welfare reform over fierce objections from liberals because it was so popular:
Clinton conceded that the bill has “flaws” but said he’d sign it.
With Election Day just three months away, he can read public opinion polls. They show that regardless of the (liberal) outcry, about eight of 10 Americans want welfare reform.
When CBS asked Americans in April 2001, “Do you favor or oppose George W. Bush’s $1.6 trillion tax cut for the country over the next 10 years?” supporters outnumbered opponents by a 51 percent to 37 percent margin. In June 2003, a Gallup poll found Americans supported the second round of cuts by a 47 percent to 43 percent plurality, while Harris found that 50 percent thought the tax cut was a “good thing” compared to 35 percent who said “bad thing.”
Yet polls show a majority of Americans oppose the health care bill and a CNN poll released last week found that just 25 percent of Americans want Congress to pass something similar to the two existing bills. A Gallup survey taken last week found that Americans oppose using the reconciliation procedure to pass a health care bill by a 52 percent to 39 percent margin. There has been a sustained national outcry against this legislation that first manifested itself in town hall meetings last August and culminated with the election of Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts in January.
Yet Obama, whose entire candidacy was built around the idea that change must begin from the bottom up, is now pursuing a top down strategy.
“It is a complicated issue,” Obama said of health care on Wednesday, continuing, “it easily lends itself to demagoguery and political gamesmanship, and misrepresentation and misunderstanding.” And he observed that “The American people want to know if it’s still possible for Washington to look out for their interests and their future.”
Evidently, according to Obama, Americans only oppose his favored proposals because they aren’t smart enough to understand them, and are incapable of looking out for their own interests and future.
In a plea to vulnerable Democrats and a tacit acknowledgement that his signature domestic initiative had become toxic to his own party, Obama said, “I do not know how this plays politically, but I know it’s right.”
Within a matter of weeks, we’ll know whether the Obama and Congressional leaders will be able to convince enough Democrats to take suicide votes and advance national health care across the finish line. But win or lose, Obama is now destined to be a divider, not a uniter.