The problem is that it is hard to be convincing, much less eloquent, about shifting explanations for a plan that does not exist. At times Obama would emphasize the public option and at others he would downplay its importance as merely a “sliver”; then he indicated an openness to a confusing new idea (a delayed “trigger” as a kind of layaway public option). But the administration “never really made clear how a public insurance plan would work.” There still is no Obama plan.
When Obama tried to mobilize support, late in the game, with — what else? — a speech, he still didn’t have a plan:
As the time for the president’s big speech before Congress approached, it was clear that the White House was still making up its health care proposal as it went along. … When, two hours before the president’s speech, I asked someone closely involved in the design of the president’s program how this idea would work, he replied, “Keep in mind that this is all very fluid.”
It becomes apparent by the end of Drew’s long article that the fundamental problem is Obama believes he is a sort of god:
Chuck Todd of NBC reported that before he gave [the Labor Day and congressional speeches] Obama’s staff had had to get him “fired up” to take on his critics. Obama, whose high self-esteem is well known among close observers, had previously assumed that a “following,” a “movement,” would be there without his having to do much to stimulate it.
The funny part of Drew’s article is that she seems to think that that’s the ticket — Obama just has to stimulate the worshippers:
Late in the game, he realized he had to do so. He’s now thrown his full weight behind his health care push by, among other things, in mid-September going on five Sunday television programs. … And around the same time, Michelle Obama, who had been seeking a more substantive White House role, entered the fray as someone who could especially appeal to women, in particular young mothers, about the stakes for them in health care reform. After this, no one would be able to charge that Obama hadn’t tried.
He went on five shows! Michelle entered the fray! But it’s up to others to produce a plan so he can sign it. Now is the moment.
Last year, in the presidential campaign, some noted that Barack Obama had less executive experience than a two-time mayor and one-term governor running for vice president; that he had (unlike that other candidate) no significant record of achievement in office; and that (again unlike her) he had no record of reaching across the aisle from his furthest-left seat in the Senate. The response was that running a successful campaign was itself executive experience and that he would govern — didn’t you hear his speeches? — as a post-partisan, post-racial, purple president.
It made for great rhetoric and a successful campaign, but as “any president” could tell you, there is a difference between campaigning and governing. It takes more than speeches — or in a pinch, five interviews — to create the political consensus necessary to pass a grand inchoate scheme. It takes more than an outstretched hand (and a video or reset button or bow) to get nations to unclench their fists. It is easy to give a big speech in a foreign capital and lean on small allies — harder to stand by them and stand up to adversaries.
Obama does not yet have a failed presidency, but he is on course to one in both domestic and foreign affairs. If he is going to revive it, he needs to come down to earth soon.