WASHINGTON — I’ve been covering Barack Obama for a few years, and it’s usually crystal clear what he is up to. Not last night. This is the first time I’ve asked myself: What was THAT all about?
His prime time press conference was worse than a waste of time. He spent an hour (with the aide of a soporific White House press corps) pouring sand (one grain at a time) into the already-slowing gears of the machinery of health-care reform.
He made no real news on health care, but DID make news on race relations with his discussion of the Skip Gates case — thereby obscuring the topic he supposedly wanted to feature.
He issued no emotional clarion call, in the manner of Ted Kennedy. He didn't dwell much on heart-rending stories, in the manner of Ronald Reagan. He gave no clever policy lecture, in the manner of Bill Clinton. He issued no testosterone-fueled threats, in the manner of LBJ.
The president — who seemed tired and distracted and clearly in need of a vacation (dealing with health care will do that to you) — pretty much just stood there for an hour, filibustering his way through non-answers and recycling old patches of rhetoric.
It was like the old Muhammad Ali “rope-a-dope” — except that this bout didn’t end with the champ springing to life and knocking out his arm-weary foe. This time, the champ just left the ring.
The question is: Why this empty (in all senses) performance? Well, he is in the midst of complex negotiations with senators and House members. These are guys and gals with pants made of iron. They love nothing more than a few days or weeks or months of negotiating behind closed doors on amendments. Guys like Henry Waxman and Max Baucus are exhausting even to think about, let alone spend hours arguing with.
Also, the president is playing the game very cautiously — letting Congress take the lead in making proposals, refusing, for the most part, to commit himself on exactly what “reform” really means.
Nor is he eager to talk about the sacrifices that will inevitably be required to extend the availability to health-care coverage to all and control costs at the same time. There WILL be cuts in spending on care, and there WILL be new taxes. But the president was unwilling to be specific on any of that.
It was like watching a three-card Monte game while simultaneously listening to a lawyer read from the Federal Register.
Obama repeated his generalized pledge to control costs and eventually “bend the curve” of health-care costs in this country. But he didn’t offer any new details about he might do it.
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If you listened very carefully, you did hear one bit of news, but it was not one that the president was eager to turn into a headline. He said he did not want the burden of any revenue increases (that is, new taxes) to fall “primarily on middle class families.” That was an indirect acknowledgment that he would indeed accept SOME new taxes on the middle class to pay for health-care reform. That’s the first time he said that.
That, in turn, was a subtle suggestion to the Hill that he might accept a provision that would tax health-care benefits, at least that is how I read it. But is it is hard to know for sure.
The president didn’t even get excited when he took some time to attack Republicans. He’s not a big one for direct name-calling to begin with, and he also was treading carefully because he is still hoping to get a handful of GOP votes for the final bill.
And Obama didn’t sound that fierce on the topic of when he wanted Congress to act. All day his aides were claiming that he and they wanted both chambers to pass initial bills by early August. But the president himself sounded less urgent and agitated than his aides.
Does all this mean that health-care reform is dead or near death?
No. In fact, there is substantial agreement, at least among Democrats, about a number of sweeping features of a bill: new regulations on insurance companies; new protections for customer-patients; a commitment to universal access, if not coverage; new studies of how to treat patients holistically and preventatively; a new system for controlling Medicare payments.
But that is just the beginning — at least if the president wants real system-wide reform — and after last night he wasn’t any close to his goal.
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