02.25.10

What Was Obama Thinking?

He was a testy clock-Nazi, the GOP was surprisingly well-briefed—and the outcome was never in doubt. Why don’t the Dems just ram health care through and spare us the spectacle?

Six and a half hours, two meals, a tub of ice cream, a gallon of coffee and 20 sheets of scribbled notes after the televised “bipartisan health-care summit” began, I still ask myself the question that popped into my head within minutes of the summit’s start: What on earth was President Obama thinking when he decided to convene this weird little powwow?

Was he trying to make the Republicans look bad—retrograde ogres who would leave uninsured babies to die in their cribs? If so, he didn’t succeed at all. On the contrary, they came out of it looking rather alert and grownup.

Obama established his command over fact and detail, but he also revealed reflexive superciliousness, intolerance of different opinions, and a shortness of patience.

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Was he trying to establish—perhaps in all sincerity—that the differences between the two sides were not unbridgeable, and that there was nothing that separated the two that couldn’t be resolved by a good, cathartic heart-to-heart on TV? If so, he didn’t succeed. On the contrary, he gave the Republicans a national stage on which to air their disagreements with the health-care bill—and air them they did, with something approaching panache.

Did he believe that he would, somehow, by his sheer charisma, “win it” for his side? If so, he didn’t succeed. On the contrary, he may have chipped his image in significant ways.

The marathon TV teach-in—in which Obama was more schoolmarm than president—should be regarded by Democrats as a great disappointment. They made no clear gain, and won no clear argument. It became apparent from the very beginning—when a testy Obama said “Let me finish, Lamar!” to the courtly Lamar Alexander—that this was not to be an open-minded exploration of the issues in question. It was, instead, a simulacrum of a debate, a pretend-conversation, one in which Obama established, yet again, his command over fact and detail, but in which he also revealed reflexive superciliousness, intolerance of different opinions, and a shortness of patience unbecoming of a president. (He also showed that he’s a tedious clock-Nazi, cutting people off all the time, while showing no inclination to edit himself.)

What was so striking about the summit was the preparedness of the Republicans. All of them had done their homework: Lamar Alexander, Tom Coburn, Jon Kyl, John McCain, Dave Camp, John Barrasso, and Paul Ryan.

The Democrats, by contrast, suffered from an acute case of “anecdotitis” (is it a preexisting condition?): Almost all of them delivered speeches that boasted a story or two meant to tug at the heart. Obama set the tone with his account of Sasha’s asthma, Malia’s meningitis, and his mom’s ovarian cancer. Nancy and Harry—as Obama called them—told us, respectively, of having “seen grown men cry,” and of a “young man called Jesus” who was stiffed by his insurers. Steny Hoyer gave us a sob story, Louise Slaughter told us about a woman who had to wear her dead sister’s teeth, Tom Harkin told us of a letter he got “yesterday, from a farmer in Iowa…” This constant argument-by-anecdote was relentlessly populist; but it was also fatally weak, as it was the infantilizing of a national audience, an invitation to Americans to wince and say, “Gee, things are bad out there. We need this bill!”

What became clear in the long hours through which the summit meandered was that Obama was the best Democrat on display, a president surrounded by pygmies and paint-by-number partisans. Without his presence, the summit would have been a fiasco for the Democrats. And yet, in wading through the weeds on TV with legislators, in engaging in tetchy exchanges with John McCain, in sitting through such silliness as Tom Harkin’s suggestion that those who oppose the bill favor some kind of “segregation,” in playing—in effect—the bruising role of a prime minister in the push for legislation, he got closer to the coal-face of American politics than is dignified for a president.

The meeting wound down forlornly, with Obama attempting to enumerate issues that the two sides had in common. But there could be no escape from the one, fundamental difference that divides the two sides: The Democrats want this bill and the Republicans don’t. That—and the latter’s preference for market solutions and the former’s rejection of them—ensured that the summit was a total waste of our time and Obama's.

After this six-and-a-half-hour civics lesson, let us now return to the Leninist mode: that of crushing the opposition. I'm not keen on health-care reform, but I do wish that Obama and his friends had hammered the thing through in its full, robust, vital form, with all the "radical" logic built in. They had the political momentum and mandate and yet got stuck—as they got stuck today—tossing out or diluting all the elements that had made it the (supposedly) progressive thing it was. I so much prefer it when the winning side does what it likes, unapologetically. There’s honesty in that, and dignity. And the other side respects you more, too.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)