It’s time for hardball, Obama

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Here’s my advice for President Obama as the crunchtime arrives for such major initiatives as healthcare reform and climate change: Get mean already.

The president’s coolness in the face of the right wing’s relentlessly anti-intellectual assault on his policies has been impressive as a display of character. But it also has enabled his opponents to subvert his program and erode his popularity.

He hasn’t been helped by the feckless performance of the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. They’ve behaved like they think the public buys into such Republican talking points on healthcare as the “death panel” and “socialized medicine” claims -- all discredited fantasies.


By failing to take a strong line, the Democrats allowed the GOP to dominate the healthcare debate all summer. Senate Majority Leader Reid wasted weeks trying to enlist the GOP in a compromise, despite clear signs that Republican leaders were only interested in sabotaging reform. Obama didn’t really take the reins of the debate until his address to Congress on Sept. 9.

Consequently, reform that Congress might have passed by Labor Day may not happen for months. Reid still isn’t guaranteeing that healthcare reform will pass this year, saying only that there’s “a very good chance” it will happen. Is this how a leader with a commanding majority should talk?

Interestingly, the GOP noise machine that has so unnerved the Democrats has done nothing to shake the public’s desire for reform. It has merely sapped confidence in the Democrats’ ability to deliver the goods.

That’s shown by the latest polls. On the question of who is trusted more to handle reform, a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Sept. 10 to 12 found that while Obama still leads congressional Republicans 48% to 36%, his margin has shrunk from a 55%-to- 30% split in mid-June.

Opinion about the program “being developed” by the administration and congressional Democrats was about equally divided pro and con, but 54% of respondents said that the more they heard about it, the less they liked it.

Yet these are pointers to what’s been said about the program, not to what’s in it. When asked to rate the actual provisions of the program, respondents expressed solid support.


Do Americans want to see an end to insurance exclusions for preexisting medical conditions? Yes, by 53% to 43% (NBC News) and 79% to 16% (CBS News).

Limits on premiums, co-pays and deductibles? Yes, by 72% to 23% (CBS). A mandate that all Americans have health insurance? Yes, 68% to 29% (Kaiser Family Foundation). Subsidies for low-income families? Yes, 71% to 22% (CBS).

How about the “public option,” which is anathema to the GOP? Asked if a government health plan should be created to compete with private insurers, Washington Post-ABC respondents said yes, 55% to 42%. CBS found even stronger support for providing a Medicare-like program for all Americans, 60% to 34%.

The broadest question -- whether the U.S. healthcare system needs dramatic improvement -- got the most definitive answer. CBS found 82% of respondents believing that the system needs to be fundamentally changed or completely rebuilt. It’s worth remembering that effective health insurance reform has five major elements: mandating individual coverage, requiring issuance to all applicants, outlawing exclusions for preexisting conditions, regulating premiums and fees, and providing subsidies for low-income buyers. All are overwhelmingly supported by Americans, and all are in the Democratic proposals.

In other words, Congress and the president are poised to give Americans exactly what they want.

As for the public option, it’s missing from the Senate bill introduced by Max Baucus (D-Mont.) -- but the polls suggest that in his kowtowing to GOP opposition, he’s misreading popular sentiment.


So why are the Democrats so reluctant to drop the hammer on the opposition and pass this thing -- by themselves, if necessary?

Could the answer lie in Obama’s cerebral personality? Obama seems to believe that if he explains his positions slowly and clearly enough, their fundamental logic will inevitably win the day without the need for arm-twisting. That approach presumably conforms best to his own personality.

It’s true that every president brings his own methods to the Oval Office. Lyndon Johnson applied ruthless intimidation to keep his own party’s Southern wing in line during the civil rights battle.

As the story goes, Johnson confronted the segregationist Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, a former mentor, nose to nose in the White House one day. “If you get in my way I’m going to run you down,” LBJ said, adding with syrupy solicitude: “I want you to know that, because I care about you.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, by contrast, governed by ambiguity. Lawmakers leaving his presence would sometimes be home on Capitol Hill before realizing that he got what he wanted from them without committing himself to anything.

It’s possible that Obama is playing a deep game -- that he aims to remain detached while the GOP destroys itself with its fatuous posturing. It’s also conceivable that plenty of strong-arming is taking place behind the scenes.


Obama seemed to signal a new hard line during his Sept. 9 healthcare speech, when he threatened to “call out” anyone who misrepresented his plan. Yet he hasn’t exactly jumped into the fray. (A good place to start would be with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who stated in a mailer sent out over his signature last week that the Democratic plan is for the government “to virtually take over our healthcare system” and run it like the “nationalized” systems of Canada and England.)

Global warming and financial regulation -- big issues lying dead ahead -- are in many respects even more complicated than healthcare and more susceptible to demagoguery. If they want to achieve their goals on these issues, the White House and the Democrats may have to assert their electoral mandate more aggressively than they have so far, or they’ll risk losing it.

We’ve already seen that Obama knows how to talk sense. Can he play hardball too?


Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at, read him at, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.