Health Care, Baby Killers and the President: A Few Brief Comments from the Road

I’m on the road, sans computer, and so have limited email access, but did want to comment briefly on yesterday’s votes which I managed to watch in a hotel lobby.   Let me make a few brief points, keeping in mind that this is all based on what I saw on the cable last night, and without reading any news coverage today.

1.  Passing a health care bill is a significant accomplishment, one that is hard to overestimate.  By “significant” I refer not so much to the substantive implications of the bill (much of which remain uncertain), as to what it says about the American political system.  It is a reminder that, contrary to what many say, the legislative system is not “gridlocked” or “broken”.  Significant laws continue to be passed, albeit after lengthy and often acrimonious debate.   Whether this is a “good” bill is another matter, one I hope to address more fully when I get back online regularly.   But the key point to take home is that even if Republicans regain control of both congressional chambers in November, they cannot repeal this legislation as long as a Democrat sits in the White House. 

2.  This is a stark reminder of the limits of presidential power.  Simply put, without the concession to Stupak by the President, this legislation doesn’t pass.  Again and again, President Obama has shown the willingness to compromise when necessary to get that last vote, even at the risk of offending liberals in his party.  The reason he did so is because he has no choice if he wanted some version of health care to pass.  Presidents are weak, and Obama is no exception to this rule. 

3.  Contrary to what you may read, this vote did not “save” Obama’s presidency.  In fact, my guess is it will have almost no impact on his ability to govern or to get other significant legislation through a deeply polarized Congress.  There is no evidence that I know of suggesting that votes like these provide “momentum” on other legislation. This is one victory on one piece of legislation – and that’s it.

4. The Congress remains deeply polarized, as the “baby killer” comments indicates.  At this point, I expect legislative productivity to pretty much end as members go into full campaign mode.

5.  The health care debate is not over.  I’ll have much more to say about this when I have time, but key votes remain – votes that could be even more contentious than last night’s.

I’ll try, if I can get a reasonable chunk of time to actually peruse the papers, to get back on line in the next several days and post some extended thoughts.  Since several of you emailed me asking for comments, let me remind you that you are free to post here to get the debate going.

More in a bit, I hope…


  1. I agree Matt, I feel the bill is going to be more significant politically than practically in the course of American’s day-to-day. Regardless, Obama 2010 > Clinton 1994, which should help the Dems in mid-term elections. At least this bill won’t still be dominating the national debate.

  2. On the Stupak executive order, it’s also important to remember that an executive order is second to law. If a woman who wants federal money for an abortion (who is not already covered by the extenuating circumstances outlined by government funding of abortions such as a threat to the mother’s life) sues the government for federal funding, it seems that the Supreme Court would uphold the language in the bill which mandates federal funding for abortions, thereby overriding the executive order. I do not think Obama will repeal his own order after final passage of the bill, if it passes the Senate, but I think it can be easily defeated in court.

  3. I think one of the big questions is the extent to which the administration learned anything from the yearlong process of passing the bill. Many presidents have struggled to figure out how best to wield their resources effectively, particularly in their first year in office. Obama may be helped by the fact that despite some missteps, he managed to bring a key campaign promise to fruition. Moreover, it is important for Obama’s reputation and power prospects that pundits and politicians alike credit his hands-on approach and close coordination with Pelosi for bringing health care back from the brink. Although Obama may have been cautious to assert too much control at the beginning because of the legacy of Hillarycare, this past year may show him that he should be less hesitant to engage with Congress and use his pulpit to press for the next set of policy objectives.

    And that’s where it gets interesting. Far from the impasse that some expect in an election year, I think Obama and the Democrats have the chance to get a lot done now that health care is out of the way. A financial regulation bill is likely to go to the senate floor, and it already has some Republican support (as well as a much broader public appeal). There’s also Obama’s push to reform No Child Left Behind, which falls into a similar category. Then there is the Senate’s climate change/energy bill that also has shown signs of life. Health care may be divisive at the moment, but it will not be the only issue come November (I almost forgot – another supreme court nomination over the summer could make things interesting too).

    I guess my basic point is that the health care victory is not only important because it is an achievement in itself; it also may have forged a strong working relationship between Obama and the Democratic leadership and provided a model for approaching important but perhaps slightly less contentious issues than health care. Obama may lack Lyndon Johnson’s knowledge of the ins and outs of congress or FDR’s experience in the executive branch and as governor, but he is a talented politician with a demonstrated ability to adapt and defy expectations. Health care reform took a long time to pass, but it might have been well worth it for Obama if it provides his administration with a recipe for future success.

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