On Sunday night, even by normal standards, Washington was a heavily divided city. As Obama, Biden, Pelosi and the Democrat high command drank champagne and hi-fived a successful resolution to 12 months of hard politics and the President’s number one domestic policy, Republican strategists and press officers rubbed their hands with glee.
For both sides, Obama’s landmark legislation passed by the House of Representatives late this weekend that promises to revolutionise a healthcare system struggling on life support is a key campaign battleground for November’s Mid-term elections.
For the Democrats, the fanfare will declare that millions will benefit from a White House-lead piece of policy, that Republican conservatism and negativity was overcome for the good of the country, and that Obama has finally proven his ‘change’ credentials.
In contrast, the GOP’s spin machine will go into overdrive. Their favourite moniker, of a “socialist” and “big government” Democratic party, will be re-energized, Obama’s election pledge to end bitter party politics on the Hill will be derided, and – most importantly – the President will be painted as a man hell-bent on enacting his will, despite public resistance.
The facts are that, while many agree that the US Healthcare system is in dire need of an overhaul, Obama was forced to resort to dubiously democratic procedures in Congress. With a straightforward bill likely to be filibustered by a Scott Brown-enhanced Senate, the Democrats will now utlilise the shady corridor of ‘reconciliation’ to squeeze the House-backed bill through the Senate. It is perhaps fitting that Brown, the Republican who won Teddy Kennedy’s long-held Massachusetts seat in January, will be forced to powerlessly watch as a piece of legislation that Kennedy vigorously supported until his death passes over his desk.
That said, the legislation still fell short of what many had hoped for. It will only cut the number of uninsured Americans by half, and even then only in 2014. Universal coverage is still a pipe dream, as is a government-run ‘Public Option’ – two things that Obama was forced to concede to a GOP fuelled by angry protests and grass-root activism.
Obama’s difficulty now is ensuring that this personal mission hasn’t cost him his political career. In a strange twist of conventional politics, the President – having won over Washington – must now convince the American public that the legislation is right, and that him and his party deserve an extended run in power.
Even before Sunday’s highly-controversial decision, many experts predicted Democratic carnage in November, with all the signs so far pointing to a Republican victory – and a recapturing of the House majority – in the mid-terms. This bill could swing the vote back towards Obama’s party, or put the nail in the Democrat’s coffin.
Indeed, 34 Democratic Congressmen defied the President’s pleas and voted No to the bill. With no Republican support, it passed by 7 votes, 219-212. Those 34 undoubtedly did so with their conservative-leaning, or Obama-wary districts in mind. For sure, Sunday’s vote would have been heart-wrenching for some, who will surely now be facing incredibly tough races in November.
Undoubtedly, in passing legislation that could have saved millions of Americans if enacted decades previously, and doing what previous Presidents failed to achieve, Obama has earned his place in history. Clinton, perhaps fearing the wrath of the electorate with eyes on a second term, curtailed his grand designs for similar reforms. As a result, he will be remembered for Lewinsky first and foremost. If Obama hadn’t had bravely sacrificed vast amounts of his personal political credit to push these reforms through Congress, he may have been remembered for little more than his skin colour. Now he has a legacy.
Yet ironically this legacy may well be his undoing. The question, of course, is whether Obama can buck a trend that may emerge in November and convince a currently skeptical US public that he deserves 4 more years in 2012. Needless to say, Healthcare was just the top issue in his in-tray, with Environmental, Financial and Energy overhauls all promised.
Certainly, he faces an uphill battle. Some Democrat supporters wanted more from this particular bill. Indeed, the full legislation won’t come in until 2014, and even then, 23 million Americans will still be uninsured. Other swing voters will surely assess the biggest domestic issue currently – unemployment – and reckon that Obama has done little to solve that problem. Yet the millions who were cut out, ignored or bankrupted by the US healthcare set-up of the past will surely stand behind the man who fought long and hard to redress the balance and extend coverage to them.
President Obama called on Democratic lawmakers to ignore the prospects of re-election and vote for what was right, not what would get public support. Many boldly heeded that call. Now, unless the US public sees the merits of his work, he may face the same consequences.
We are right to celebrate Obama’s victory in this most crucial of battlegrounds, but the war is an altogether different fight. Liberals in the US and across the world must hope that his wasn’t a valiant sacrifice.