In my mind, President Obama's State of the Union speech settled, at least for now, the question of whether he remains committed to health reform:
"So, as temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we've proposed. There's a reason why many doctors, nurses, and health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo. But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Let me know. Let me know. I'm eager to see it. Here's what I ask Congress, though: Don't walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let's get it done. Let's get it done."
But will Obama back up his words by putting the full weight of his office behind the effort? Roll Call reports that Democrats are looking to the President to help them find a "clear path" to break the gridlock, and some remain doubtful about its chances.
Perhaps the most important development, other than Obama's speech, is a declaration today by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) that she has the votes to pass health reform if the Senate agrees to adjust the bill through the budget reconciliation process, which requires only a simple majority. Channeling Winston Churchill, Pelosi is quoted as saying, "We'll go through the gate. If the gate is closed, we'll go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we'll pole vault in. If that doesn't work, we'll parachute in. But we're going to get health care reform passed for the American people." Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) also is "looking very closely" at the reconciliation option, according to Roll Call.
There are big differences between the House and Senate bills, though, so it will require President Obama's direct involvement and leadership to get agreement on the changes to be made through reconciliation and persuade a majority of Democrats to go along.
What about the GOP? I would like to believe that there could be agreement on an approach that would attract bipartisan support, but I doubt it. Republicans uniformly will oppose use of reconciliation to "force" enactment of health care. The Democrats will counter that reconciliation is justified to overcome Republican "obstructionism" in the Senate, which prevents legislation from being passed by a simple majority vote, and they will remind people that reconciliation was used to pass the Medicare Part D prescription drug program and the Bush tax cuts when the GOP controlled Congress.
The one area that could have been a fertile ground for bipartisanship is medical liability reform, but it is probably too late for that. The President asked for "better approaches" from either party to reduce the deficit and lower premiums. The CBO estimates that tort reform would "lower costs for health care both directly, by reducing medical malpractice costs - which consist of malpractice insurance premiums and settlements, awards, and legal and administrative costs not covered by insurance - and indirectly, by reducing the use of health care services through changes in the practice patterns of providers" and "reduce federal budget deficits by about $54 billion during the 2010-2019 period." Unfortunately, I don't see the President doing the heavy lifting within his own party to enact tort reform, and I don't see Republicans agreeing to support the broader health reform bill even if he did.
Finally, the wild card in all of this is whether the President's speech and subsequent actions will slow the erosion of public support. Last night, the President acknowledged the problem:
"Still, this is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, the process left most Americans wondering, What's in it for me?"
The Kaiser Family Foundation's latest health tracking poll, fielded earlier this month but before the Massachusetts special election, found the public evenly divided overall about the health reform bills, but that, "Majorities reported feeling more favorable toward the proposed legislation after learning about many of the key elements, with the notable exceptions of the individual mandate and the overall price tag."
President Obama's speech provided a lift to health reform, but he will need to do more to persuade a skeptical public about what's in it for them.
Today's question: Do you think Obama's the State of the Union address lifted the prospects for health reform?