So President Barack Obama reminded Congressional leaders, media scribes, TV impresarios, and a watching public at his much-ballyhooed “health-care summit,” on February 25. OK, he didn’t really say “Yo” – and he technically made the “I’m the president” remark by way of noting that his speaking time wasn’t included in the minutes-per-party totals. Nevertheless, it’s hard to feature any president in either the recent or non-recent past speaking those words in any public forum. (Try to picture Ike or JFK or FDR saying it – even in jest. It just won’t work.)
“I agreed to see you because I heard you were a serious man of business, worthy of respect,” rasped Don Corleone, when the drug-hoodlum Virgil Sollozzo showed up at the Don’s offices. Don C did not say, “I’m the Godfather,” or “I am the Don.” His reputation was so formidable that there was no need to state the obvious – that he was, himself, a serious man of business, worthy of respect.
It can be diverting to try to identify an event or phrase that will become a “hinge” of history. One of those was “…a date that will live in infamy…” FDR coined it in his declaration of war the day after Japanese planes “suddenly and deliberately” attacked our naval base at Pearl Harbor. That phrase became America’s watchword for the entire war against not only Japan, but Germany as well.
“Your president is not a crook” is a phrase that unhinged a presidency. It started Richard Nixon down the laundry-chute of history. So did “I did not have sex with that woman” (with gratuitous finger-waggling included), for Bill Clinton. His presidency slid downhill on its backside after that – arguably costing him the public’s respect and Al Gore the presidency.
Will “I’m the president” unhinge Barack Obama’s presidency? I don’t know, but as prognosticators like to say, the signs and portents are not auspicious. In this instance, Mr. Obama was trying to clarify that he was not just one of the guys at the conference-table, and didn’t need no steenking time-clock. But the incident seemed to reduce him to the level of the others at that table.
This was the table where Democrats and Republicans had supposedly sat down in sweet harmony to reason their way to a bipartisan solution on health care. It was clear from the start, of course, that nothing of the kind was going to happen. This was Mr. Obama’s meeting, and he had no intention of letting it get away from him to become a substantive debate on the merits and flaws of the Democrats’ precious legislation. And just in case anyone had forgotten, he reminded all of us that he was The Man.
To put it in perspective, try to imagine a brain surgeon who will operate on a member of your family making a big deal about being the head surgeon. The declaration would be necessary only if he obviously knew little about brain surgery or medicine, or if he brought no known credentials to the operating table. Would you entrust your loved one to a surgeon who showed up with a chain saw? Or would you accept an actor who had played a doctor in a soap opera? Not bloody likely (so to speak).
This, in a nutshell, is Mr. Obama’s problem with his ambitious health-care reform agenda. Not only does he manifestly know little about medicine, insurance, or the free markets dealing with any of these, but he has come to the “operating theater” with a surly gang of chainsaw-toting party hacks who clearly know no more than he does – and possibly less. Together, they have cobbled together a political and economic monstrosity so alarming that an aroused public simply will not accept it.
Mr. Obama pretends to believe that the public just doesn’t understand the Democrats’ plan. He keeps saying that it hasn’t been explained properly - thereby implying that we are too dull to grasp it. I say “pretends” because he is certainly too smart not to comprehend that the public opposes both the Senate and House bills by large majorities. Polls uniformly affirm this. The opposition is undeniable.
Alternately, the president complains that Republicans are blocking what the American people want. But this claim fails the “laugh-test,” as there should be more than enough Democrats to pass the reform. Last November the House squeaked its bill through, 220-215. Thirty-nine Democratic representatives voted against it. One of the Yes-votes was Joseph Cao of Louisiana, a Republican who has since declared himself a No for any future bills. Since the November passage, two Democrats who supported the bill have resigned from the House (Neil Abercrombie, D-HI, Robert Wexler, D-FL) and one has died (John Murtha, D-PA).
This leaves 216 probable Yes-votes out of the present House-membership of 432 – i.e., a 216-tie. A tie cannot pass a reconciled bill. Unless Speaker Pelosi makes somebody “an offer he can’t refuse,” the House has probably done all it can on health-care reform. Even the eternally optimistic Speaker has admitted that the votes are not there.
When Senator Ted Kennedy died, in August 2009, the Massachusetts legislature and governor expedited a bill to allow immediate appointment of a replacement, ahead of the January-election of a new senator. The temporary replacement was Paul Kirk, a party-line Democrat who was expected to follow Dems’ lead on health-care legislation. He did exactly that in December, when Senate Democrats passed its own version of health care reform by a vote of 60-40. No Republicans crossed over to support it. Having 60 votes, Democrats could overcome any filibuster that might have prevented the bill from coming to a vote. It was a close shave, but it looked like it was all over but the shouting to get a reconciled bill through both houses of Congress. What could possibly go wrong?
Mr. Kirk was supposed to keep the Kennedy seat warm until the Democrats could place the correct successor in it, in the January special election. Unfortunately, the voters intervened. (Don’t you just hate that?) Despite frantic Democratic campaigning – including an entire day of personal appearances by the president – a little-known Republican state senator named Scott Brown came out of nowhere to remind the great and the near-great that this was neither the “Kennedy seat” nor the Democrats’ seat, but was the people’s seat. He handily defeated the Dems’ candidate, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. This cost Democrats their filibuster-proof majority and made future Senate-passage unlikely for any revised version of health-care reform.
Thus, we have stalemate, as neither house of Congress – still massively controlled by the Democrats – can move harmonized legislation. The situation is caused not only by Republicans, but by deep divisions within the Democratic Caucus. Mr. Obama’s health-care sit-down with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders was crafted to look like an honest attempt to reach across the aisle, but it really was meant to furnish cover for Democrats’ planned attempt to pass the legislation through a Senate-process called Reconciliation, which is exempted from filibuster rules. It would permit the legislation’s passage with a simple majority of 51 votes.
In the health-care summit, Mr. Obama declared that the public doesn’t care about congressional rules or process, so long as the job gets done. But he is whistling past the graveyard there. Reconciliation applies only to financial bills passed in essentially the same form by both House and Senate and tweaked into final form by a joint House-Senate committee. Reconciliation has never been applied to legislation of such scope and cost – in this case affecting 1/6th of the nation’s economy.
A huge public outcry is almost certain to arise from any attempt to use the process to shove health-care reform through the Senate. Mr. Obama knows this, but he plans to argue that he had no choice, due to GOP-obstructionism. Once the legislation is passed, he avers, the public will “love it.” This is why Mr. Obama played the “I am the president” card at his summit. He believes he has the juice to get the public to accept the unacceptable – provided that he reminds us often enough of who he is.
My crystal ball is unreliable, but I doubt if this tactic will work. Americans love to grumble about Congress’s arcane ways, but they are usually pretty fussy about seeing those processes and traditions faithfully honored. Mr. Obama is gambling that the public will willingly pitch Senate tradition over the side in order to get his “valuable” health-care reform. He might be in for a shock, though. And he might also find himself lampooned, long past his term, for saying, “I’m the president…” By such small points are the tides of history sometimes diverted.