By Jeffrey Young - 09/10/09 03:32 AM EDT
President Barack Obama’s address to Congress on healthcare Wednesday evoked eerie parallels to President Bill Clinton’s speech almost exactly 16 years ago.
Both were young, dynamic Democrats renowned for their oratory skills in the first year of their presidencies, pushing a controversial plan to enact sweeping reforms to the healthcare system. Both faced deep divides within their own party, strong skepticism from Republicans and resistance from powerful interest groups.
Despite the significant differences in the plans Obama and Clinton presented, each president laid out the problems they sought to solve in remarkably similar terms.
Likewise, each man set before himself the manifold challenges of rallying their political base, reassuring nervous middle-class and senior-citizen voters, and courting bipartisan cooperation without abandoning core ideological principles.
But much has changed in a decade and half and Obama is in the midst of a very different moment from his predecessor.
Clinton delivered his address near the beginning of the healthcare debate that ultimately helped usher the Democrats out of power on Capitol Hill.
In Obama’s case, healthcare has already traveled far, with four of the five healthcare committees in Congress already completing bills. Because of this movement, Obama also had to confront his critics head on and in stronger terms than Clinton did.
Obama never mentioned Clinton’s name during his address – though he did reference healthcare proposals from Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush – but the most recent attempt at healthcare reform was clearly on his mind. “I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last,” he said.
Rhetorically, Obama’s speech owed much to Clinton’s.
“I understand that the politically safe move would be to kick the can further down the road -- to defer reform one more year, or one more election, or one more term,” Obama said.
“But that is not what the moment calls for. That's not what we came here to do. We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it,” he said. “I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history's test.”
Clinton, too, framed his call for healthcare reform as a moment for Americans to live up to their nation’s legacy of progress: “Our history and our heritage tell us that we can meet this challenge. Everything about America’s past tells us that we will do it.”
Obama, like Clinton, laid out the case for healthcare reform in moral, economic and fiscal terms and attempted to persuade people to embrace his proposals by convincing them that the current system is inadequate and unsustainable.
“Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing. Our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it the most. And more will die as a result. We know these things to be true,” Obama said.
Clinton made the same case in his speech: “Ask yourself whether the cost of staying on the same course isn’t greater than the cost of change.”
The two speeches mirrored one another on substantive terms, as well.
Both presidents said rising costs, the growing ranks of the uninsured, pressures on individuals and small businesses, corporate competitiveness, and the sustainability of the federal budget were all parts of the same problem, and thus demanded bold and large-scale solutions from Washington.
Clinton offered up a set of buzzwords to describe his plan that could easily apply to Obama’s: security, simplicity, savings, choice, quality and responsibility.
But despite these types of parallels, Obama finds himself in a very different place than Clinton.
At the time of Clinton’s address, congressional Democrats were already stewing over what they perceiving as the White House’s heavy-handed, secretive approach to devising its reform package.
This year, Democrats have been clamoring for Obama to get more involved after months of leaving the details in the hands of lawmakers – one of the Obama administration’s “lessons learned” from the Clinton years.
And though neither the House nor the Senate has held a vote on a healthcare bill – and the Senate Finance Committee will not mark up its version until late this month – healthcare reform under Clinton advanced at a much slower pace.
Obama and Democratic leaders were disappointed that the House and Senate failed to pass their respective bills before the August recess but the first committee vote in the 1990s didn’t take place until six months after Clinton’s speech. Two of the five healthcare committees never even held votes and no bill ever made it to the floor of either chamber.
The larger political situation was also different.
Democratic lawmakers had to deal with some rancorous town halls over the recess – and Obama was confronted with heckling by Rep. Joe Wilson (S-S.C.) during his speech – and a more partisan atmosphere than during the early months of Clinton’s presidency.
At the same time, Obama and the Democrats have successfully forestalled huge anti-reform campaigns by powerful interest groups: The health insurance industry’s infamous “Harry and Louise” campaign began before Clinton even addressed the Congress. By contrast, the industry’s response to Obama’s speech was remarkably muted.
Though health insurers continue to oppose a government healthcare plan and new taxes on their products, America’s Health Insurance Plans President and CEO Karen Ignagni issued a statement that closed with, “The nation cannot afford to let this historic opportunity pass us by,” which is a far cry from the 1990s mantras, “They choose, you lose” and “There’s got to be a better way.”