Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The State of the Union: The More Things Change…

It is a funny thing: it feels like everything has changed in health care reform, and yet we can’t help but have this crazy sense of déjà vu on the eve of President Obama’s State of the Union Address.

The questions about health care reform today aren’t so different than they were eleven months ago, when President Obama made his first address to a joint session of Congress last February 24. (That address was not, technically, a State of the Union address, but—with apologies to constitutional scholars—that is a distinction without a difference).

A year ago, the big question was: how aggressively would Obama pitch health care reform on his agenda? Where would it fall amid other priorities, most pressingly job creation and the reeling economy? And would he say enough to bring Congress with him for the heavy lifting reform would entail?

That pretty much sounds like what we will be listening for tomorrow night.

Yeah, the circumstances look very different. Then, Obama was the newly elected President riding high on an unprecedented wave of hope if not hype. Today, he is still personally popular, but his policy agenda is bloody and bruised.

On health care, sweeping legislation passed both the House and the Senate, but the election of Republican Scott Brown as the new Massachusetts Senator makes final enactment seem like an insurmountable challenge.

But things really aren’t so different than they were a year ago. In 2009, Obama addressed Congress without a filibuster-proof majority. At the time, in fact, the Democratic caucus had only 58 members: it wasn’t until Arlen Specter switched parties and Al Franken was finally certified as the winner in Minnesota that the Dems had 60.

And Obama was fresh off an embarrassing setback then too: the withdrawal of Tom Daschle from consideration as HHS Secretary and health care reform czar.

A year ago, the question was how far and how fast should Obama push for reform? Would it be comprehensive reform or bust? Or would there be a more measured, scaled down plan, with jobs, energy and other priorities defining the agenda?

Those are the same questions Democrats and health care reform advocates are asking today.

And it is interesting to remember the answer a year ago. Then, Obama announced a “down payment” on health care reform, but declined to define comprehensive reform as the priority—instead saying that a robust, sustainable economic recovery depended on reforming health care, clean energy and education reform.

We will see tomorrow night if maybe Obama decides he was right all along…

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