Low expectations on health summit could be a blessing for Obama

Few expect Thursday's health summit to generate significant momentum on healthcare reform. But that could be a blessing in disguise for President Barack Obama.

Obama needs to deliver some type of game-changer if he has any hopes of reviving the cornerstone of his domestic agenda. And there is little doubt that Obama is the underdog in his effort to overhaul the nation's health system.

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Early in his presidential primary against Hillary Clinton, Obama showed he comfortable when the chips were down. However, when he gained the upper hand on her, he had trouble knocking Clinton out of the race.

He had to grind his victory over Clinton out. And healthcare reform is no different.

His plan was to pass a bill last year, but amid internal disputes in the Democratic Party, several deadlines slipped.

And throughout 2009, Obama deferred to Congress on the legislative details. Now, Obama is taking over at the wheel while Democratic leaders in Congress take a backseat.

The president, of course, wasn't sitting idly on the sidelines last year. He repeatedly held high-profile events, including press conferences and a joint address to Congress.

Those speeches and events attracted headlines and praise from pundits, but didn't change any votes.

Thursday's televised, bipartisan meeting could be his last chance to breathe life into the legislation. But the key question is: Is Obama really seeking GOP votes to move a bipartisan bill or merely setting the stage to use the partisan tactic of reconciliation to ram home a bill in the coming months?

Since announcing the summit, White House officials been coy about what the president will propose, with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs telling reporters to "stay tuned" to see what kind of proposal the administration will release before the summit.

Reuters reported on Friday night that the plan that the White House will post on its website is expected to reflect common ground negotiated over the past several weeks by House and Senate Democratic leaders. However, Obama's Saturday radio address suggested he was open to GOP ideas, such as allowing Americans to purchase insurance from a company in another state to give people more choices and bring down costs.

He added in his address, "Some Republicans have also suggested giving small businesses the power to pool together and offer health care at lower prices, just as big companies and labor unions do. I think both of these are good ideas – so long as we pursue them in a way that protects benefits, protects patients, and protects the American people."

The healthcare debate has taken its toll on Obama politically, and in an election year, Republicans have grown energized.

Obama acknowledged at an event in Las Vegas Friday that the debate "has been knocking me around pretty good."

White House officials said that Thursday's event represents part of a new strategy in dealing with congressional Republicans, applying pressure to them to define what they are for and not just what they are against.

“The president will directly engage Republicans in Congress and give them the opportunity to either contribute additional ideas toward a solution or explain their politically motivated decision to block legislation that will lower health care costs, lower the deficit and crack down on insurance company abuses," one senior White House official said Friday.

While expectations on Capitol Hill are low for what can be achieved at the summit, Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis said "this summit is a critical battle in the political war that has become healthcare reform."

To that end, Kofinis said, Obama's strategy has to be "stress the urgency of action," make it "crystal clear" that healthcare is an economic issue and "third, box Republicans in by forcing them to state publicly what reforms they agree with and then expose their hypocrisy when they oppose moving forward."

"I don't think it's a make or break moment, but it is fair to say that this summit will be key to the momentum of where healthcare goes next," Kofinis said.

Ross Baker, an expert on the presidency and a professor of political science at Rutgers University, said Obama doesn't need any surprises Thursday.

Instead, the president should stay on message that he wants to work with Republicans. If they continue to oppose Obama's efforts, Baker said, then the president will have successfully set the stage for the controversial legislative maneuver known as reconciliation.

"I'm convinced they're going to go ahead and do it by reconciliation," Baker said.


If that is the plan, Baker said, then Obama on Thursday needs to "enumerate the many times he made the gesture and was spurned by Republicans."

"Here's the script: We tried everything. We tried to accommodate Republicans," Baker said.

Already favored by liberals who want to see a public insurance option, reconciliation has long been viewed as a desperation shot for Democrats.

Republicans are openly decrying consideration of such a move in the lead-up to the summit, but the White House has long refused to rule out such a move.

In November, Gibbs said as long as “we continue to make progress, then we don't see any need to change the process."

In a follow-up, Gibbs was pressed on what Democrats would consider if progress were halted.

“Then we'll look at alternatives,” Gibbs said.

Since that exchange, Obama has lost his super majority in the Senate with the election of Republican Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. And in recent days, more and more Democratic senators have signaled a willingness to consider reconciliation.

Bob Cusack contributed to this article.


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