Tuesday, February 2, 2010

President Obama the Destructor

If you haven’t seen President Obama’s address to the House Republican retreat in Baltimore last Friday, stop what you’re doing and watch it now. Then, email the Youtube videos or this post to everyone you know. It’s long—-a 20 minute speech and an hour long Q&A—-but it will be the best-spent hour and 20 minutes of picture-and-sound watching you’ll have in a long time. Immensely entertaining and eye-opening.

I don’t think the House Republicans will be inviting the President back anytime soon. Seen side by side in the same room, with the President’s willingness to engage on substance pitted against the stale Republican talking points, the President was revealed as a man among boys. It was like Michael Jordan playing basketball against a court full of middle school kids. Bad ones.

You can read the transcript here.

GOP leaders were no doubt expecting a chance to retell sob stories of the President's supposed rejection of their entreaties to him, and feign willingness to work with him in a bipartisan way. Instead, the retreat turned into a stage for the President to list all the Republican ideas he has already embraced, and shine the light back on the GOP's own refusal to cooperate. The President's central point was that he is, and always has been, open to good ideas from the other side - as long as they work (or can be expected to work based on analysis by independent experts).

House Republicans are doing their best at damage control, trying to spin their destruction as a victory. "We've been locked out in the cold for the past year," they moan. "Finally the President is showing he's willing to listen to us. Finally he admits we have ideas."

And incredibly, the mainstream media seems to have accepted this narrative (or at least had before Obama's performance Friday). The media tells the tale that President Obama moved too far left, ignoring Republicans' pleas to contribute, and has now been forced to move back to the center by the Boston Massacre of 2010. Writing in Forbes, Paul Howard of the Manhattan Institute advises:

Obama campaigned as a centrist who would draw on the best ideas of both parties, but he has governed by deferring to the liberal wing of his party and locking Republicans out of Democrats' backroom health care deals…

As a sign of his (new) good faith, the president should invite the Congressional leadership of the Republican Party to the White House, listen to their concerns and find ways to hash out policy compromises that will result in truly bipartisan health care reform.

Even the ordinarily astute Economist seems suckered, writing that "After the Democrats’ stunning loss, Barack Obama has no choice but to move back to the centre."

Am I missing something? Has the President been pursuing a leftist agenda and ignoring Republicans for the past year, only to reach out to them for the first time last Friday? In that address, the President pointed out that his health care bill is quite centrist, and claimed he's been keeping an open door all year, but is that anything more than politics?

The notion that the President has kept Republicans locked out all year struck me as absurd, but as a consultant, I understand the possibility that my own partisan feelings are clouding my thinking.

So I decided to find out. I did a news search in the database Factiva over the dates 01/20/2009 (the inauguration) to 10/01/2009 (roughly three weeks after the President’s health care address), using the unsophisticated search terms: “Obama,” “reach out,” and “Republican." There were 2,582 hits. Here was the first hit, and it's quite telling:

Title: Republican Lawmakers To Obama: Give Us A (Tax) Break

Source: CongressDaily/P.M., 27 January 2009, 533 words, (English)

Text: President Obama met with Republican lawmakers today to try to win support for the $825 billion economic stimulus plan, but even before he arrived, GOP House leaders urged members to oppose the package when it comes to a vote Wednesday...

The idea that the Obama administration has been "unilaterally and universally rejecting all Republican proposals" sounds preposterous given that just seven days into his presidency, those same House Republicans were busy rejecting the President's stimulus while he was on his way to meet with them.

Here's another one. On the day after President Obama's inauguration, the New York Times wrote:

President-elect Barack Obama is set to visit a gathering of House Republicans. The incoming White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is in running cellphone contact with his former Congressional adversaries. Some Republicans say they hear more from the Obama team than they ever did from the Bush administration.

As Mr. Obama prepares to move into the White House, he and his top advisers are making a visible effort to engage Congressional Republicans, hoping to show they are serious about Mr. Obama's commitment to bipartisanship and to try to enact an economic recovery measure with solid support from both sides in the crucial early going.

The outreach has gone beyond the phone calls that Mr. Obama, Mr. Emanuel and others routinely make, though the influence of that personal contact should not be underestimated. More substantively, though, the House Republican leadership has accepted Mr. Obama's invitation to put together its own ideas for economic recovery and said it will initially offer them as a part of the economic recovery package, not as an alternative as has been the usual practice.


Mr. Emanuel said ideas from House Republicans on the economic recovery package will get serious consideration. "There is not just one way to create jobs," he said.

He and Lawrence H. Summers, Mr. Obama's economic adviser, met privately with Senate Republicans on Wednesday afternoon before Thursday's vote on freeing the remaining $350 billion in bailout money. Even Republicans who were not persuaded by the consultation said they were impressed by the candor of the two men.

"I think they have been pretty impressive," said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. "They are saying all the right things, and I think they did themselves some good in the briefing."
(Source: Hulse, Carl. "Obama Team Makes Early Efforts to Show Willingness to Reach Out to Republicans." New York Times, 1/20/2009. Found on Factiva)

In other words, not only had President Obama met with Republicans from day one, Republicans had also agreed to submit their ideas with the understanding that they would be incorporated into the broader package, not as the sort of all-or-nothing alternative proposals they've been offering since.

On health care, the story is equally telling. I went back and edited the search terms to include "health care," and found some interesting stories from the first nine months of the administration.

For example, on July 27, 2009, Adam Nagourney wrote in the International Herald Tribune:

The decision by Senate Democratic leaders last week to devote more time to winning Republican support for a health care overhaul has allowed President Barack Obama to keep alive the possibility of bipartisanship on one of the most contentious issues on his agenda.

Why did hopes for bipartisanship subsequently fail? Was it because President Obama and Democrats had locked Republicans out and ignored their ideas? To the contrary: two months later, Kaiser Health news (of the non-partisan not-for-profit Kaiser Family Foundation) found that as the final Senate bill was unveiled, "Republicans are denouncing the Democrats' latest health care proposal, even though some Republican ideas are embedded in the plan." The article explains that the Senate health reform bill contains several "Republican-inspired" provisions, including:
  • Cross-state sales of insurance to individuals and small businesses: The Baucus bill would allow two or more states to form "compacts" that would allow individuals to buy policies from insurers in the other states. The insurers would be subject only to the laws and regulations of the states in which the policies were written. In a separate measure, insurers could create national policies with uniform, federally set benefits that could be sold in any states in which the companies are licensed. The policies would be exempt from state benefit rules.
  • Medical malpractice: The legislation says Congress should consider creating state demonstration programs to evaluate alternatives to the current litigation system. Republicans had called for creating special malpractice courts and limits on damage awards.
  • High-risk pool for people with pre-existing medical conditions: Within a year of the enactment of the legislation, a high-risk pool would be set up for people with pre-existing conditions. The pool would continue until 2015, when the new state insurance exchanges would be up and running and insurers would be required to sell policies to all who apply, regardless of their medical conditions.
  • Prevention and wellness incentives: Medicare beneficiaries would become eligible for annual "wellness visits" with their doctors, paid for by the government program. They no longer would have to pay out of their pockets for certain tests and treatments, such as flu vaccinations or diabetes screening. Financial incentives also would be offered to beneficiaries who completed certain "healthy lifestyle" programs targeting risk factors such as high cholesterol, diabetes or smoking. This isn't just from the Republicans; Democrats embrace the idea as well.
(Source: Pianin, Eric and Julie Appleby. "Republican attacks on Baucus health plan ignore its GOP ideas." Kaiser Health News, McClatchy Washington Bureau, 9/17/2009, found on Factiva)

So when you hear someone complain that President Obama has refused to consider Republican ideas like tort reform and allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines, you can tell them that THEY'RE IN THE BILL.

Of course, the fact that these Republican-inspired provisions are in the Democratic health care bills will not stop Republicans from saying they are not. And it certainly won't stop them from voting against the bill. After all, all 40 Senate Republicans just voted "no" to pay-as-you-go legislation. They filibustered defense appropriations 37-3. These are Republican bread-and-butter issues - deficits and defense - and yet the GOP is voting against them. As Steve Benen points out, "GOP lawmakers are so reflexive in saying 'no' to everything, they end up opposing ideas they support, and at that point, reason has no meaning."


State of the Union Smackdown, PLUS Republicans' hilarious plan for health care reform

The simplest explanation of health care reform you will ever read

Yes, government creates jobs


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