Robert Reich: Obama ‘Needs to Work Fast And Be Tough As Nails’

Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor and professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said Tuesday that with Obama set to deliver an address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday on healthcare reform, “a bit of history [on the issue] may be in order.”

In a blog post on his website, Reich wrote:

Universal health care has bedeviled, eluded or defeated every president for the last 75 years. Franklin Roosevelt left it out of Social Security because he was afraid it would be too complicated and attract fierce resistance. Harry Truman fought like hell for it but ultimately lost. Dwight Eisenhower reshaped the public debate over it. John Kennedy was passionate about it. Lyndon Johnson scored the first and last major victory on the road toward achieving it. Richard Nixon devised the essential elements of all future designs for it. Jimmy Carter tried in vain to re-engineer it. The first George Bush toyed with it. Bill Clinton lost it and then never mentioned it again. George W. expanded it significantly, but only for retirees.

All the while, the ideal of universal care has revolved around two poles. In the 1930s, liberals imagined a universal right to health care tied to compulsory insurance, like Social Security. Johnson based Medicare on this idea, and it survives today as the “single-payer model” of universal health care, or “Medicare for all.” The alternative proposal, starting with Eisenhower, was to create a market for health care based on private insurers and employers; he locked in the tax break for employee health benefits. Nixon came up with notions of prepaid, competing H.M.O.’s and urged a requirement that employers cover their employees. Everything since has been a variation on one or both of these competing visions. The plan now emerging from the White House and the Democratic Congress combines an aspect of the first (the public health care option) with several of the second (competing plans and an employer requirement to “pay or play”).

Devising a plan is easy compared with the politics of getting it enacted. Mere mention of national health insurance has always prompted a vigorous response from the ever-vigilant American Medical Association; in the 1930s, the editor of its journal equated national health care with “socialism, communism, inciting to revolution.” Bill Clinton’s plan was buried under an avalanche of hostility that included the now legendary ad featuring the couple Harry and Louise voicing their fears that the Clinton plan would substitute government for individual choice — “they choose, we lose.”

Reich added that it’s crucial that a “new president must move quickly, before opponents have time to stoke public fears.” He said after Johnson’s 1964 landslide the new president “warned his staff to push Medicare immediately because “every day while I’m in office, I’m going to lose votes. I’m going to alienate somebody. We’ve got to get this legislation fast.”

Moreover, “Presidents who have been most successful in moving the country toward universal health coverage have disregarded or overruled their economic advisers.” Still, Reich said Congress could end up being the biggest “obstacle” to enacting reform and that’s why it remains the president’s responsibility to “set broad health reform goals and allow legislators to fill in the details, but be ready to knock heads together to forge a consensus.”

President Obama seems to have anticipated many of these lessons. He’s moved as quickly on the issue as this terrible economy has let him, and he has not been too rattled by naysaying economists (although the cost estimates of the Congressional Budget Office set him back). But although he outlined his goals but left most details to Congress, the lesson from history is that he may have waited too long to force a deal on that disorderly body (especially disorderly when Democrats are in charge). The question remains whether, in the weeks and months ahead, he can knock Congressional heads together to clinch it, and overcome those who inevitably feed public fears about a “government takeover” of health care and of budget-busting future expenditures. He needs to work fast, and be tough as nails.

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