In politics, there is a place for reasoned debate. There is also a time for the exercise of political power. These two times can coincide and at the moment they do so precisely. The President needs to step up to the plate, stop the mixed-messaging coming from his staff, bring together the members of Congress who are willing to strike a deal, and he needs to play hardball.
No one, least of all me, shares the inflated, Bismarkian notions of presidential power that animates the mind of Dick Cheney and which too often animated the policies of the last administration. But, the President is elected by the people and becomes their chosen instrument for the accomplishment of the goals he set out in the campaign. President Obama was not elected to break the race barrier, though break it he did. He was elected to accomplish something for the American people and health care was at the top of his list from the start of his campaign until election day.
Everyone knows the opening words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural about fear. But, it was at the end of that great speech that he addressed the relationship of presidential power to democracy, and did so at a time when many people were advocating that Roosevelt adopt dictatorial powers to get us out of the Depression. He said, "We do not distrust the future of essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift, I take it."
President Obama needs to take the gift he was given last November. He needs to start calling some bluffs, start promising some road construction projects, start inviting key congressmen and senators to Camp David. For instance, has anyone approached some of the more conservative Democrats like Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska and said, "Senator, we know you can’t be with us on the public option, but can you vote with us on the cloture vote?" Will his constituents really throw him out because of the way he voted on what is, after all, a procedural motion? Once the health care legislation passes, how it passed will fade into memory quickly.
I do not fault the president for his willingness to compromise in order to get bipartisan support for the legislation. Large changes such as this are better enacted on a bipartisan basis and if the Democrats try to ram through health care using the reconciliation process, obviating the need for a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the bad blood between the parties will make all subsequent bipartisan efforts very difficult. But, he needs to make sure that the GOP is negotiating in good faith. Sen. Grassley of Iowa is saying one thing in Washington and something else back home and that is not kosher.
What the Democrats cannot afford is a repeat of 1993 when no health care bill even came up for a vote. They need to pass something. If it has a public option, great. If it does not have a public option, we can live with it. If it has a public option that only kicks in if certain cost-savings are not achieved, that works too. But, the President needs to make this happen. The dire need of the American people has brought the issue this far. It is ripe for picking. President Obama needs to marshal the power of his office to bring it home.