No more kicking the can

It’s essentially a high-stakes version of hide-and-seek. The person who’s “It” methodically captures the others, calling out their names and hiding places while tapping down on an empty coffee container. One by one, the field is cleared, unless one of the hidden parties beats “It” to the can — kicking it down the field, unleashing all participants and restarting the game.

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In last night’s address to Congress and the nation, President Barack Obama used the children’s game as a metaphor for Washington’s inaction on healthcare. “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,” he said. “But that’s not what the moment calls for. That’s not what we came here to do.”

Washington insiders were put on notice — particularly the powerful health insurance lobby, which for decades has successfully led efforts to kill healthcare reform. The bag of tricks that had so reliably worked in the past weren’t going to undo all of the progress made this time.

“I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than improve it,” Obama said. “I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what’s in the plan, we will call you out.”

And call them out he did.

The president dispensed with the fraudulent claims offered by opponents of reform. His plan won’t cut Medicare benefits or raise taxes on the middle class. His plan won’t direct federal dollars to abortions, or benefits to illegal immigrants. And no plan he signs will raise the deficit by a penny.

Obama also defined in specific terms what his plan does mean.

He would make it illegal for insurance companies to deny coverage due to pre-existing conditions; outlaw arbitrary limits on the coverage that patients may receive in a year or a lifetime; put a hard cap on out-of-pocket costs; and require insurance policies to cover routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies.

The president’s plan would help small businesses to provide coverage to their employees. And for individuals who don’t have healthcare, his plan would offer quality, affordable choices.

Whenever a president takes bold action, there are bound to be a few poor sports.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) angrily interrupted the president’s remarks — an outburst condemned by his Republican colleagues, and one for which Wilson later apologized (an apology the White House accepted). Insurance companies were no doubt chagrined by the president’s proposed regulations on their conduct.

But it wasn’t personal.

“I have no interest in putting insurance companies out of business,” Obama said. “They provide a legitimate service, and employ a lot of our friends and neighbors. I just want to hold them accountable.”

By exposing the Washington politics that rewards self-interested insiders at the expense of real change, the president defined the seriousness of the moment.

“The time for games has passed,” he said. “Now is the season for action.”

In other words, leave kick-the-can to the kids. It’s time for the grown-ups to get to work.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.