SOTU and Health Care: Politics vs. Policy

I’ve been hyper-busy today and not able to keep up 100% with all the SOTU spin and interpretation. Nevertheless, at the risk of repeating something someone else has said and I failed to read (yet), I’ll toss in my two cents about the way Obama handled health care in the speech.

On the one hand, policy wonks (myself included) would have loved for him to give a crystal clear signal of what direction he wants Congress to go. My preference would have been for him to say, “To the House: pass the Senate bill. To the Senate: work with the House to amend it.” That’s clear enough. That’s the policy approach.

On the other hand, there’s the political. Obama wants to (and did) set the stage for the midterm campaign claim that Republicans have brought nothing serious to the table. That’s why he said (I’m paraphrasing), “If you’ve got a good idea on health reform, send it to me.” Of course, unless Republicans are actually willing to vote for anything, all the politically feasible ideas that make any policy sense have already been offered. We know what they are. There really isn’t any other way to go from here except in the direction the House and Senate have already gone.

So, the expectation on the part of Obama and the Democrats is that Republicans won’t offer any serious alternatives, and won’t vote for anything. We all heard Obama ask for their ideas and help. If the GOP doesn’t turn up a good idea that they’ll actually vote for then that prepares the ground for accusing them of politically motivated obstructionism.

Notice, Obama can’t simultaneously invite new ideas and also command Congress to pass existing legislation. Or, he can do that but not in the same speech. In not giving the House and Senate marching orders he made a choice away from highlighting policy and in favor of the political. That’s natural given the nature of a SOTU address in an election year. A political event calls for political tactics. And that’s exactly what was delivered.

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