article

07.29.09

Obama Needs Bubba

While Obama kicks back over beers with Gates and Crowley, his health-care plan is falling apart. Maybe he should invite the original triangulator, Bill Clinton, to the Hill to save the day.

While 51 percent of Americans tell the Gallup poll they don’t understand the health-care debate (and the other 49 percent are probably lying), the White House is preparing for the Beer Summit on Thursday night. Harvard Professor Skip Gates, we are told, will be drinking Red Stripe or Beck’s, while Sgt. James Crowley, the Cambridge cop who arrested him, will be ordering up Blue Moon. The president himself will imbibe a cold Budweiser. Perhaps, like Roosevelt when he mixed one of his famed “dirty martinis” for Winston Churchill, Obama will fix the drinks himself.

On Larry King last night, even Colin Powell joined the party. The retired general made a stand for judicious self-control in the face of the ongoing evil of racial profiling. "There is no African American in this country who has not been exposed to this situation," he told King, but "a better course of action is to take it easy and don't let your anger make the current situation worse."

What's next? A Jay-Z concert for Skip? We're only six months in and the post-racial presidency seems to have bitten the dust. Meanwhile, health care is stalled.

"Sure, [Obama] calls me every few weeks," the former president told a person I know. "But it feels as if, you know, he’s just checking a box."

After six months of world adulation, is the charismatic president just not used to meeting such infuriatingly unresponsive characters as the balky Blue Dog Democrats? Has he become so used to wowing ’em from 10,000 feet that he's rusty with the kind of one-on-one, let’s-have-a-beer charm offensives he needs to be launching behind closed doors with surly Southern congressman and senators, not just the professor and the police officer who are the current stars of cable news reality shows?

General Powell went on to describe to Larry King the “unease” he picks up when he travels around the country about the rising deficit and the plight of the economy. “You have to have a main attack, as we say in the military,” he said. “And the greatest concern I’m hearing …is, ‘My gosh, where is all this money coming from?’…We have to do…a better job in helping the American people understand some of these most complex issues, health care being No. 1.”

If Obama has lost his customary ability to synthesize, perhaps he should turn for help to that great ol’ explainer William Jefferson Clinton. This administration’s determination not to make the last Democrat’s mistakes on health care has been overlearned by Obama and his advisers. Because the received wisdom about Hillarycare is that it was killed by the unilateral arrogance with which it was handed down to Congress, Obama has gone too far in letting warring committees turn his key campaign promise into roadkill.

Surely it’s the former president who got it wrong once who has spent the most time and lost the most sleep thinking over how he would do it again. More important, wouldn’t Bubba do a better job than the professorial Obama at sweet-talking, arm wrestling, hugging, and head locking such obstructive Blue Dogs as Arkansas Rep. Mike Ross, who used to run a family drugstore just like the one Bill remembers from his years growing up in Hot Springs? Or North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler, who’s one of that class of moderate Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer promised not to push around too much when Rahm persuaded them to run for a seat in the House? Obama needs to get himself dirty, and be seen to get dirty.

It looks like Obama would rather live on cheeseburgers than let Clinton get into the act on health care—or on anything else, for that matter. Maybe he thinks there’s no stage big enough for both these two Mount Rushmore megastars and never will be. Despite surface cordiality and self-restraint for Hillary’s sake, the former president’s wounds from the harsh charge of racism on the campaign, a falsehood on which Obama created his "post-racialism" campaign, remain deep, and they are not assuaged by the coolly minimal lip service a still mistrustful Obama pays to Bill’s presidential wisdom. “Sure, he calls me every few weeks,” the former president told a person I know. “But it feels as if, you know, he’s just checking a box.”

Isn’t this the racial reconciliation that should be taking place over a beer at the White House?

Xtra Insight: The Daily Beast complete coverage on health care.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.