President Obama left his signature domestic policy in the hands of Congress, and now he is facing the consequences. From the outset of his presidency, Obama invited Congress to devise the details of health care reform legislation — an apparent bid to avoid what happened when President Clinton tried to overhaul health care 17 years ago.
Leaving it to Congress put an unusually glaring spotlight on how Capitol Hill does business. The spectacle of Congress’ horse-trading, secrecy and gridlock has fueled today’s virulent anti-Washington mood. The public’s reaction was all the greater because Obama had campaigned on a promise to change the way Washington did business, and because health care reform engendered such personal high hopes and anxiety.
The way voters saw it, the smoke-filled room was back — and they did not like it. “The forces unleashed by the financial collapse created in the minds of people the sense that there are demonic forces at work in banking, real estate and, not surprisingly, in Congress as well,” said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who is an expert on Congress.
Democrats also suffered black eyes from special legislative provisions written into the bills to win support from particular lawmakers — especially Medicaid funding-breaks sought by Sens. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a measure dubbed the “Louisiana Purchase” and “Cornhusker Kickback.”
Because of YouTube and Facebook, TV on your cellphone, we know these deals are happening. We assumed they happened 20 years ago, but we know it today. Such practices are easily exploited by GOP critics at a time of economic hardship and mistrust of large institutions.
That’s one reason Obama has called a health care summit this week — to try to renew the debate on more pristine terms. Even if nothing comes of the talks, they are designed to spotlight on national television precisely the bipartisan, high-minded debate that Congress’ year-long process was not.
Obama himself helped bring on the backlash. The result is an anti-Washington mood the Republicans have tapped into. Will the health care summit facilitate the two main parties meeting someplace in the middle? Is it possible to make it back to the old “hand-across-the-aisle” way of getting work done? Or are we destined to continue a period of political uncertainty, partisanship and trading of Capitol Hill control.