Obama AWOL on Health Reform?

Times tackles the President’s “light touch”

Robert Pear of The New York Times, who almost always can be counted on to let the world know the latest political think on some legislative matter or other, gave us a good update on health reform the other day—and in reasonably clear language, too. Pear reported that the insurance industry had made “several concessions,” and that the Dems’ committee chairs had agreed that this year’s health reform efforts will boil down to:

• Mandating everyone to have insurance

• Requiring employers help pay for it

• Allowing a government insurance plan to compete with private insurers

But there’s more to the story. Pear wrote that congressional bigwigs had yet to figure out how to pay for the premiums that the currently uninsured probably can’t afford on their own under the so-called individual mandate, or what would happen to various medical services, like prostate screening, that some states now require insurers to cover. The piece included some ominous thoughts from Sen. Jay Rockefeller about the role of the special interests. “There’s too much happy talk,” Rockefeller said. He added that the “lobbyists talk more gently” but “could be just as lethal to health care reform as they were 15 years ago.” The major special interests have been relatively quiet this year—appearing oh so agreeable, but keeping their powder dry for the real battle ahead.

The real zinger in Pear’s piece came when he revealed what seems to be the President’s role in reform—his leadership, or lack thereof, on the issue. For that, readers needed to read between the lines, using Pear’s shorthand as a guide. Pear tried to pin down a point which we at Campaign Desk have observed for some time: that the President, despite his lofty rhetoric—health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year—seems to be AWOL.

That, of course, is contrary to the message most of the media have given the public. I have read countless stories that refer to Obama’s overhaul of health care. But whatever happens, it looks more like Congress’s overhaul, and the word “overhaul” might be a stretch. The private insurance system looks alive and well; it will just have more people in it. The danger of leaving the details of reform up to Congress is that the special interests cozy with members have a good shot at getting what they want—as Sen. Rockefeller warned.

To his credit, Pear homed in on the President’s involvement, reporting that the White House was “displaying a surprisingly light touch,” and had encouraged the Democrats in Congress to make the hard decisions while the administration was holding forums around the country hearing suggestions from ordinary people. Gosh, this is the second set of forums the administration has had (the first were in late December). Light touch? How’s that for a euphemism? But maybe that’s as far as the Times’s editors were willing to go. Perhaps it’s too early for media adulation of the President to morph into critical analysis.

Pear noted that Obama had shown he was serious when, in his budget, he asked for a $634 billion down payment on premium subsidies for the uninsured. But neither the House nor Senate accepted his specific proposals. Pear tried to gauge the President’s commitment. Nancy-Ann DeParle, who was recently appointed White House health czar when Tom Daschle’s team departed, told him:

In my view, there’s been a steady progression toward getting a health care reform bill done this year, as the president has urged and requested.
Pear asked DeParle if she had recommended any specific policy options to Congress. DeParle replied: “That has not come up yet.” Really? The White House health director has not made any policy recommendations or weighed in on the Congressional rejection of the President’s financing options? Pear has given the media an opening for exploring this one. We hope he and other reporters covering Washington will let the public know if and when the administration has something to recommend.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.