What change looks like

“This is what change looks like,” said President Barack Obama, summing up the historic healthcare effort Congress had just completed.


His words made good on a call to action candidate Obama made 28 months ago, at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner: “I’m in this race because I want to stop talking about the outrage of 47 million Americans without healthcare and start actually doing something about it. [A]nd I won’t do it 20 years from now. I won’t do it 10 years from now. I will do it by the end of my first term as president of the United States of America.”

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It was a bold promise, dismissed by cynics as another empty political pledge. Yet even as seven presidents before him had tried and failed, Obama made it happen — just 14 months after taking office. Not bad.

But by passing reform, the president did more than just provide Americans with quality, affordable healthcare options and put an end to the worst insurance-company abuses. He has begun to make tangible progress on the central rationale for his candidacy: changing the way Washington works.

In the process, Obama had to overcome fierce resistance from an insurance lobby that rakes in record profits by denying coverage to those who get sick or have a pre-existing condition. He battled anti-reformers’ lies about government takeovers and “death panels” and gave ordinary Americans access to the same benefits members of Congress get. He reduced the temperature on hot-button issues like abortion, to provide the largest healthcare tax cut in history to millions of families and small businesses. He took on the powerful defenders of the status quo and won a victory for those who live outside of Washington’s halls of power.

Almost immediately, Americans were given a stark contrast: what change did not look like.

After fighting reform for more than a year while offering no alternatives of their own, congressional Republicans shifted to Plan B. On Monday, before the president even signed it into law, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) — beloved by Tea Party activists and the rest of the GOP’s far right wing — introduced a bill to completely undo the reform measure. That same day, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) proclaimed that the legislation was “terribly wrong for America” and pledged: “[W]e are going to try to repeal this.” Republican leaders in the House and Senate endorsed that call, and GOP candidates across the country rushed to campaign on it.

It’s an interesting strategy. After decades dubbing themselves the party of lower taxes, Republicans will seek voters’ support for their plan to raise taxes on families and small businesses by almost a half-trillion dollars. After months of trying to scare up votes from seniors with falsehoods about Medicare benefit cuts, GOP candidates will tell seniors they’ll reopen the doughnut hole and ask them to pay more for their prescription drugs. And after pledging to protect Americans from losing control over their healthcare, Republicans will propose stripping away consumer protections against insurance denials and giving power over medical decisions back to the industry bureaucrats.

But healthcare is just the beginning.

As defenders of business-as-usual in Washington, congressional Republicans know they need to take action on other key issues. With regulatory reform clearing committee this week, the GOP is preparing for the next big fight: preserving a financial system that allowed reckless Wall Street behavior to wreck our economy, shed 7 million jobs and force massive taxpayer bailouts. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) had a private meeting with the big-bank brass to say “he was disappointed many on Wall Street continue to donate their money to Democrats” when it was congressional Republicans who had “stood up to Mr. Obama’s efforts to curb pay and impose new regulations.”

And last week, perhaps sensing that his efforts to protect the insurance lobby from Democratic reforms were doomed, Boehner scrambled to assure corporate interests that Washington insiders shouldn’t go down without a fight. “Don’t let those little punk staffers take advantage of you, and stand up for yourselves,” he admonished the crowd at an American Bankers Association summit.

It’s all an effort, I suppose, for Republicans to co-opt Obama’s message of change. The GOP mantra: If Democrats rein in insurance-company and Wall Street abuses, Republicans will change it right back.

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.