Mr. President: Don’t give up

The need for health-care reform is as great as ever

As President Obama struggles to recover his momentum following the loss of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and with it the foolproof passage of his health-care-reform legislation, the most important thing he can do is not give up.

Pundits are saying Scott Brown’s victory was a repudiation of the Democrats’ plan, but that’s not necessarily so. First, no exit polls were done, so there’s no way of knowing just what was motivating voters. Second, Brown’s opponent, Martha Coakley, ran one of the worst campaigns in the history of the Democratic Party and pretty much gave away the store. And, third, to the extent the election was about health care, it was anomalous at best.

That’s because Massachusetts already has nearly universal health care—something Brown, as a state senator, supported. In fact, the health-reform legislation now in Congress is patterned after and very similar to Massachusetts’, but not quite as good, which is probably why voters there weren’t eager to embrace it.

Health-insurance reform remains a critical need, however. Health care is one-sixth of the economy, and the country can’t fully solve its economic problems without also solving its health-care problems.

President Obama took a gamble that he could use the momentum from his election to do something seven previous presidents and Congresses have tried but failed to do: provide health care for all. He nearly succeeded. It’s a shame he didn’t, because people soon would have seen the many benefits of the reform.

Unfortunately, the recession has turned out to be even worse than it appeared a year ago, and the health-insurance effort has sucked the air out of Washington. That’s made the president and Congress less able to respond to people’s economic fears, which for most people are much more deeply felt than worries about health insurance.

They’re angry as hell, actually. It doesn’t matter that the Wall Street meltdown happened during the Bush administration, as did the bailout of the big banks and AIG. Joe and Jane Sixpak see the fat cats getting obscene bonuses and blame the president. To his credit, he has not shied away from the responsibility.

Politically, Obama probably should have backed off health care when he saw the Republicans in Congress wanted only to see him fail, were going to vote against whatever he came up with, and would demagogue the issues with phony charges about “death panels” and “pulling the plug on Grandma.”

We’re pleased to see him taking a tougher, more populist stance on such issues as regulatory reform of the banks, while adopting a pragmatic, jobs-oriented approach to the economy and seriously addressing concerns about the growing deficit. There’s a great deal of anxiety and pain abroad in the land, and the president needs to show he understands and is doing something about it.

All in all, Barack Obama has had a substantial first year as president. By pushing through a $737 billion stimulus package, he kept a wobbling economy from sinking into full-blown depression. His efforts to re-establish America’s diplomatic credibility around the world have been tremendously successful. And he’s in the midst of waging two inherited wars in a manner that’s designed to make it possible for the United States to pull back from both as soon as possible.

The health-care legislation can be revived at any time. Eventually it, or something like it, will pass. In the meantime, the president needs to reconnect with the American people, shore up his fragmented party, and take the fight to the right-wing blowhards who have so outrageously misrepresented his efforts. Show the American people whose side you’re on, Mr. President.