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Obama's healthcare balancing act

Mark Mardell | 08:02 UK time, Thursday, 25 February 2010

Obama_226.jpgThe Blair House summit probably won't go down in history. It may be forgotten by next week. I doubt that many of the participants are looking forward to it. But I am, with the degree of relish that some reserve for the Super Bowl or the FA Cup Final. It is a moment of risk and possibility that should delight the political connoisseur.

The stakes are very high. Healthcare reform was a big Obama promise in his presidential campaign. It would disappoint his core supporters not to get something through. Indeed, it would surely disappoint him to fail, where Bill Clinton failed. In the first year, Obama had to do Afghanistan. He had to deal with the economy. Healthcare was his policy of choice. To fail to get some change would be the proper rather than current use of the term an "existential threat".

Clearly since Republican Scott Brown's victory in taking what was supposed to be a safe Democratic Senate seat, Obama has made a deliberate and conscious decision to return to his campaign promise to govern in a bipartisan way. The claim that he is some sort of left-wing ideologue, even by an American definition of far left, is over done, but last year he didn't seek out compromise on this issue.

Democracy chastens politicians and both the president and the Republicans will strive to co-operate simply because the American people seem to want a cross-party, or bipartisan, approach. But the parties are so far apart that this summit is merely a game of chicken.

The Republicans want to tear up what is on the table. Indeed, apparently they argued long and hard about the shape of the table. They could not afford to look churlish and reject the apparent hand of by bipartisan friendship proffered by the president.

Nor can they fall into an obvious trap.

They seem confident in their interpretation of the polls, that a very clear majority of the American public reject the various Democratic plans, be they House, Senate or White House. We will see how they plan to play it but they are right to scent danger.

On the surface Obama's trap looks perfect. Like one of those rare moments (rare for me anyway) in chess when any move your opponent can make has you salivating with pleasure. Accept any little involvement and they are held in a deadly embrace. Reject all the offers of compromise any they look surly and hard line, the party of "no".

I suspect they must go for the latter and attempt to paint Obama as the one who won't compromise. He must know that and will have another trap prepared.

This promises to be theatrical and the quality of charisma on the Hill is sorely strained. But it is very high-wire stuff: a single puncturing interruption could undo the president. A strong performance from him could change the weather. Or I suppose I could be really wrong and it will be detailed and dull, a delight only for wonks. But it would still be about the blame game.

So let's assume the Blair House summit passes without Rapture or lions and lambs getting it together on the White House lawn. Imagine the parties are as far apart as ever. What happens next? That is what is what is so difficult to predict.

Obama could admit failure and blame it on the Republicans. Quite good politics, I think; it at least avoids his economic message being wiped out in the lead-up to the mid-terms. But it is ego damaging and disappoints the base.

He could go for a process called "budget reconciliation" and push it through the Senate on a simple majority. This seems a favourite of many Democrats who think a win is a win, helps millions of people, and it doesn't matter they will be accused of liberal arrogance.

This looks to me like putting what they believe will be eventually popular policy before the crude politics of image. As we say in Britain, "very courageous, Minister".

He could try to persuade House Democrats to vote for the Senate bill, intact, as the only alternative. No clear downside if it works, but they are a difficult bunch and it could consume the rest of the year without any certainty of success. He could go for a slimmed down option, as the Wall Street Journal suggests, which looks pragmatic in a desperate sort of way.

But for now, we are between tick and tock.

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