Memo to Barack: Take what you can get

There are times in any legislative endeavor when you should take what you can get and hope to win the rest later. That’s the point President Obama is fast approaching in regard to health care reform. His constant, full-campaign-mode jawboning has probably run its course in effectiveness.

He apparently understands that the public insurance option is a non-starter despite paying it some lip service to appease the Democratic ultra liberal base that favors it as the first step toward a single payer system leading ultimately to the real goal — socialized medicine. Majority Democrats in Congress are divided over it, and the Republican minority and an increasing majority of Americans want none of it, if the polls are correct.

While Obama was stirring up a large crowd in a Minneapolis basketball arena the other day with a rousing call to action that mirrored his earlier address to Congress, tens of thousands of protestors were rallying before the Capitol in opposition to his enormous spending initiatives, including overhauling health care. He should pay attention to them and realize that some of those who lined the National Mall from Capitol Hill almost to the Lincoln Memorial even voted for him. It was a most civilized demonstration heavily larded with older voters. But the tendency is to regard these people as uncaring anti-government radicals and discount their efforts. That is just wrongheaded.

There clearly are desperately needed areas of reform, including portability of insurance coverage and an end to deniability of coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Finding ways to curtail the horrendous costs are essential. Some national oversight of the insurance industry is a must and finding a way to make certain all Americans have a shot at insurance is of course necessary. But these things can be achieved in small steps with well thought out funding rather than rammed down the throats of a public already panicking over the huge additions to the national debt and what those debts mean to the next generations.

Obama’s statement to Congress that his proposals would not add one dime to the deficit seems unsupportable at best: at worst, it was disingenuous. No one in the chamber, including those who stood and applauded and cheered loudly, actually believed it. The few who were around during the adoption of Medicare and Medicaid and had heard all the false promises and bloated claims then were incredulous. The top cost for those programs was underestimated twentyfold, and along with Social Security now threaten to consume most of the national budget. History shows the $900 billion, 10-year price tag the president has placed on his plan would require a mastery of wizardry even Merlin would envy.

Those who believe that they can completely alter 16 percent of the economy overnight will not be convinced by any argument that fails to meet their ambitious goals. There is a middle ground, however, and some level heads — believe it or not there are a few left in Congress — need to take over.

Given the huge outlays aimed at repairing the economy and the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama should be asking himself how much he needs to achieve in this first year of his presidency. It certainly is a question being asked by most Americans. Sure, his party has the votes in Congress in terms of sheer numbers to do anything it wants, but that might cost it more politically than it wishes. The Democrats already face the uncomfortable prospect of going it alone, given the diminishing hope for even token bipartisanship. Without Republican backing they must take responsibility for any mistakes and there will be some.

One also wonders whether this president has been spending too much time on the health initiative and not enough on the nation’s other problems, including the economy. But Obama sees health-care reform as the key to future economic stability. He may be right but such an ambitious undertaking can’t be expected to have an instantaneous solution. He should be willing to take what he can get now and come back for more later.

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)