Reprinted from Consortium News
Despite House passage of the health-care overhaul bill on Saturday night, the word "dithering" is getting attached to President Barack Obama, much as "hubris" was tagged to George W. Bush and "undisciplined" applied to Bill Clinton.
But is that fair? After all, Obama has been in office less than 10 months and had to confront a multitude of disasters left behind by Bush. Those included the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, a yawning budget deficit, tattered international relations and two open-ended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Plus, some of those complaining most about Obama's failure to act decisively, the Republicans and the neoconservatives, were party to many of Bush's policy decisions that have proved so destructive. And Obama has taken on some very tough issues, most notably health-care reform, which has bedeviled presidents for nearly a century.
That said, however, there does appear to be some merit to the "dithering" accusation. Or put differently, Obama has shown a tendency to let himself be diddled.
On health care, for instance, Obama let deadlines slip as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Montana, led months of fruitless negotiations with three Republicans. Finally, Baucus was forced to produce his own bill, whose key features -- like health co-ops to replace a public option -- have since been jettisoned by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The surviving health legislation itself is a faded image of what Obama promised during the presidential campaign. Though the "public option" survives in the current House and Senate versions, it is anything but "robust," now just a pale shadow of the cost-saving notion that liberals had expected.
Though the health insurance industry now opposes the legislation, private insurers earlier won concession after concession from the Democrats and no longer fear that 119 million Americans might shift from the industry's plans to the public option, as one industry-backed group warned last spring.
The surviving House-Senate versions of the public option would be off limits for big companies, whose employee policies make up the largest and most lucrative part of the market, and the public option wouldn't have rates linked to Medicare, a major cost-saving provision.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that only six million Americans would sign up for the House version of the public option and -- since they are likely to include a high percentage of sick people -- the rates for the public option might even be higher than rates offered by private industry.
One of the few progressive features left in the two surviving pieces of legislation is the House provision to extract more than half of the new health care costs from a surtax on the rich (individuals earning $500,000 and couples making $1 million), raising about $558 million over the next decade.
That provision at least would put the richest Americans who have benefited disproportionately from Bush's tax cuts in position to subsidize a national health insurance program. But the Senate version contains no such surtax and its prospects remain doubtful.
So, the American people have watched the messy health-care debate play out this year with Obama seeming to have little control over the process and with even members of his own party rebelling. Thirty-nine House Democrats joined with all but one Republican to vote against the health bill that won by the narrow margin, 220-215.
This drawn-out health care battle also has undermined Obama's ability to show decisiveness in other areas.
Because he has struggled to keep his top legislative priority (health care) on track for so long -- and must worry about losing any Democratic votes in the Senate -- he has not been able to confront other problems very aggressively.