Monday, March 22, 2010

Healthcare win gives Obama new momentum

Business Times - 23 Mar 2010

Healthcare win gives Obama new momentum

He's now in a position to press ahead with rest of his domestic and foreign policy agenda


SINCE Barack Obama entered the White House, Republican leaders have vowed to turn the debate on his ambitious plans to restructure America's healthcare system into the new president's 'political Waterloo'.

It was a plan to tear down what has been seen as the centrepiece of his domestic policy agenda. The Republicans would then be able to destroy his presidency and regain control of Congress in the 2010 midterm elections. They would then ensure that President Obama would not be re- elected for a second term.

And indeed, a powerful coalition of Republican lawmakers, lobbyists for the health insurance and pharmaceutical industry and the agitated Tea Party protesters marshalled their enormous political and financial resources - and through the sophisticated manipulation of the media - to obliterate each and every proposal to overhaul the ailing healthcare system that has been advanced by the White House and its Democratic allies on Capitol Hill.

Mr Obama wanted to win Republican support for a bipartisan healthcare reform and resisted pressure from the progressive wing of his party. He rejected proposals to create a government-controlled healthcare system along the British model or the publicly funded structure in Canada. Instead, he called for modest reform that would extend healthcare to almost all Americans - just the way other wealthy industrialised nations do it - but would still allow private insurers to continue playing a central role in the new system.

But not even one Republican lawmaker agreed to work with the White House in crafting new healthcare legislation. The Tea Partyers and right-wing bloggers and radio talk-show hosts led by Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News Television argued that any attempt to ensure universal healthcare coverage was equivalent to a big-government takeover of the private sector.

They claimed the plan exposed the president's alleged dictatorial tendencies and radical ideology. Mr Obama's healthcare plan was depicted as part of a (take your pick) Nazi or Communist plot or just French/Swedish socialist conspiracy. Congressional approval of the healthcare reform, they warned, would bring about the decline and fall of the United States, no less.

This right-wing assault seemed to be quite effective. Public opinion polls indicated that the Obama healthcare reform proposals were losing public support. Conservative Democrats in the Senate - where the Democratic Party had controlled 60 seats - seemed to be turning against the White House on the issue.

This disenchantment with President Obama fuelled by the Republicans and the Tea Partyers led to the dramatic Democratic loss in the special race for a vacant Senate seat in Massachusetts that followed the death of Senator Ted Kennedy (who ironically was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the healthcare reform legislation).

And after the Democrats lost their 60-seat majority in the Senate, it seemed that the healthcare issue would, indeed, turn out to be Mr Obama's Waterloo, with many pundits writing off the Obama administration as a one-term phenomenon (No, He Can't!) while predicting huge Republican Congressional victories in November.

But after the US House of Representatives approved legislation to reform the healthcare system on Sunday, President Obama proved to be more like a tenacious Churchill, surviving the powerful Republican political Blitz, than a defeated Napoleon.

The 219-212 House vote delivered a historic political victory for Mr Obama, coming after a century during which both Democratic and Republican presidents had failed to mobilise support for reforming the healthcare system.

Hence the vote will probably be compared by future historians to the New Deal legislation, another major landmark in the process of strengthening social-economic protections for the American people.

The vote in the House assured that health insurance coverage will now be extended to 32 million uninsured Americans while providing other Americans with protections against losing their insurance.

The new system will be funded, in part, through rising tax revenues from wealthy Americans. And while Republicans have warned that the programme will expand the federal government's deficit, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has concluded that the reforms will help bring down the deficit in a few years.

The healthcare bill will still have to overcome a few legislative obstacles in the Senate. But the conventional wisdom in Washington is that with his victory close to being secure, the Obama presidency that only a few days ago seemed to be doomed for oblivion has been resurrected. And, more than that, propelled by his renewed political momentum, President Obama will be in a position to press ahead with the rest of his domestic and foreign policy agenda, leading with the plans to reform the financial industry's regulatory system.

Mr Obama's advisers are hoping that the passage of the healthcare bill, accentuating the president's image as a 'winner', will help to strengthen his position at home and abroad.

They are expected to integrate Mr Obama into a more populist political narrative in which he will be portrayed as a defender of the interests of the struggling residents of Main Street while the Republicans will be depicted as the allies of Wall Street and Big Business.

But the Republicans believe that Mr Obama's legislative victory on healthcare could prove to be a long-term political win for them. They point to opinion polls that reflect growing public resentment against the federal government and continuing worry over the ballooning budget deficit.

And they are confident that, come November, American voters will punish the Democrats for approving legislation that could make the much despised Big Government even bigger.

But then, seven months is a very long time in US politics.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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