June 26, 2009

Maybe Barack hired the wrong brother

There was a pretty good line in Paul Krugman's column today about Barack's audacity deficiency, to the effect that Obama seems to spend a lot of time "negotiating with himself." Images of public figures slowly crystallize, and the one that appears to be taking shape around Prez O is that he tends to pull his punches before he needs to. Krugman was writing specifically about the public option in the health care legislation currently Topic A in Congress, and Obama's tendency to waffle about whether he will or will not approve of a bill that does not have such a central feature. I think most people probably realize that without a public option, the "reform" legislation is simply more deck chair arranging with no purpose other than to convince the substantial majority of Americans who want universal coverage (about 75%) that something was done even though it wasn't.

Anyway, Krugman's line is apt. In the law game, it's known as "bidding against yourself;" if you've staked out a reasonable position, as Obama has with the public plan option, you do not back off that position until you absolutely must (if then), and you certainly do not signal that your position is in some sense negotiable even before the other side responds. They already know it's negotiable; telling them they can have what they want simply by asking for it telegraphs to your opposition that you don't really believe in your position. Thus, the Republican and Democratic employees of the health insurance industry (which is to say, all Republican and "moderate" Democrats in the Senate) already assume they have won that fight, and the only question is how much more can they eviscerate health care reform before Obama just flicks the whole thing in and says, "Well, I tried."

Well, no you didn't, and that's the whole problem. Unless Obama also wants to engage in a Kabuki exercise in which he pretends to go to bat for the millions and millions of Americans who are getting hammered by high insurance premiums, insane deductibles, spotty coverage, retroactive disqualification for preexisting conditions and the rest of it, he needs to draw that famous line in the sand. No public option, no health care reform, and then paint a huge red target around the Senators who blocked the advance of the bill, particularly those who are up for reelection in 2010.

What I mean by the title of this note is that Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, is supposed to be "The Hammer." How could Obama possibly negotiate in such a weak and ineffective style if this guy's in his office every day pumping him up for battle? I can't imagine that Ari Emanuel (pictured above), said to be the model for super-agent Ari Gold in "Entourage," would ever play the game this way. He would assess his bargaining points in terms of the leverage he has for every one of them. Such as, Obama's got three-fourths of the American people behind him. You can do an awful lot of damage to your political opponents in the electoral process by playing that card.

If he proceeds the way Ari would play it, I don't see how Obama can lose. If he gets a public option, he's a hero. If he draws a line in the sand and is stymied by a lot of corrupt Senators, he's still a hero and he can get rid of a few more Republicans next year. The only way he can actually lose is if he plays this wussy "bipartisan" game where the Senate rolls him and then reaches the conclusion that in all future battles, all they have to do is wait for Obama to cave. And then in 2012, Barack will have his own date with destiny.

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