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Speeches are about Strategy, not Poetry

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at President Obama’s attempts to pass health care reform. See his previous OUPblogs here.

President Obama is finally attempting to take charge of the health-care reform debate with an address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.

It comes down to this. If he does not pass a health-care bill – whatever its provisions may look like – he will indeed face his political Waterloo, because health-care reform has become the defining issue of his 2008 campaign on which the president has staked all his remaining electoral mandate. That this is open knowledge to every member of congress does not bode well for the president, because just about the worst bargaining position one can have is the one in which everyone knows that the bargainer not only cannot have what he wants, but must make compromises to get even some of what he wants. Because everyone knows this, everyone to the left and right of Obama will make their demands, and his only hope of coming out unscathed is if one or the other side is willing to shift their bottom line (on what Democrats call the “public option” and what Republicans call “government-run insurance”.

The bargaining game ahead of the president is enormously complex, but there are few ground rules that he could follow to maximize his returns. First, he must absolutely decide in his mind if he wants a bipartisan bill or not, and there are many Democrats who don’t. I will assume that he must at least present the public facade of wanting a bipartisan bill.

Second, he must pull all sides away from the fault-line of the debate – whether or not to have a “public option” – because health-care reform is rather more than just about “government-run insurance.” The
president must find a way for us to see the bigger picture, if only so that we do not continue our microscopic attention to our differences.

Third, Obama needs to create face-saving conditions and incentives for one or more dissident factions in the health-care debate to capitulate. It seems to me his best bet is to try to change the minds of members of his own party, in part because the president seems doggedly committed to at least a semblance of bipartisanship. An electoral mandate (or whatever that is left of it) is nothing without the coat-tails effect of the president, and on this the president can try to call in a few favors in return for future ones. As I think it has become very clear during the August congressional recess, capitulation from the Republicans seems all but unlikely now. If anything, Republican members of congress have become emboldened by the president’s falling approval ratings.

Senator Olympia Snowe’s idea that a public option would only be “triggered” if certain conditions are set is one such face-saving possibility for the president to try to woo the more liberal members of his party. In privileging the status quo, the conditional triggering option concedes that median congressional position on the debate has shifted to the right of where the president initially stood. But by specifying what the triggering conditions are, liberal democratic members of congress can tell their constituents (like the AFL-CIO) that they are still achieving their initial goals but with different means. If the president can just shift the debate to what these “triggering” conditions should be – and the devil will be in the details – he would have earned a significant victory. Such a compromise will not unite the country, but it could make us less divided, ironically, because no one is getting what they want.

It is too late now for the president to tell us what he wants on Wednesday, not only because he won’t get it, but also because he has allowed the debate to fester and the battle lines are now drawn. His
job on Wednesday is to muddy the battle lines again. As he is already starting to do, Obama should try to convince all negotiating parties that there should be no bottom lines, no veto points, no categorical
demands. The erstwhile professor of constitutional law will have the unenviable task of bringing together what the constitution pulls asunder. Not the Great Communicator, but the Great Umpire he must be.

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