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By Jay Cost

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Obama Votes "Present"

In my judgment President Obama's address last night was little more than a campaign speech with the Congress as the set piece. Evaluated from that perspective, it was a success. But from the perspective of finding a policy solution - i.e. actual governance - it contributed nothing to health care reform.

The President had to give yesterday's speech for a simple, straightforward reason: his party is divided on a few key issues, above all the public option. This is what forced the delay through August, at which point the opposition was able to seize the microphone from government leaders and drive their poll numbers down.

To ameliorate this dilemma, the President chose to give last night's speech. In it, he:

(1) Focused on items that unite the Democrats.
(2) Blasted Republicans while praising bipartisanship.
(3) Indulged in rhetorical flights of fancy that have become his stock in trade.

Each of these items contributed some aspect to the ostensible goal of rallying the Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents. It probably did that, at least to an extent.

However, it failed to address the reason for their doldrums. Democrats need rallying because of internal divisions over actual policy disagreements. President Obama did not deal with those divisions. When you strip away the setting, the soaring rhetoric, the poetic cadences, and all the rest, you're left with the criticism that both Hillary Clinton and John McCain leveled at him through all of last year: he voted present.

The following is the bottom line on health care, as best I can tell. The progressives are deeply skeptical of the insurance companies, the drug companies, and all for-profit entities that provide health care. They believe that any reforms lacking a "robust" public option will enable them to continue to place profitability over care. Many progressives consider the public option to be a compromise from the single-payer system that they prefer.

This idea is a non-starter to those who are deeply skeptical of increased government activity. There are a lot of these people in the Blue Dog districts, which tend to be in the South, the Border States along the Ohio River, and the Great Plains. So, anything approaching a "robust public option" is simply too much for them. Their representatives are rightly concerned that a yea vote on a public option will cost them their jobs.

Meanwhile, Republicans have already been forced to walk away from the table because of all sorts of other items. As a rhetorical point, it is all well and good for Democrats to blast Republicans for not cooperating in the process, but that is tantamount to criticizing them for not being Democrats. Let's be serious: does anybody really think the bulk of the GOP - the party of William McKinley, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan - will sign on to such a massive increase in governmental regulation of private activity? This is what makes most Republicans who they are. You can add goodies like tort reform trial programs, but that is like putting chocolate frosting on chopped liver as far as most Republicans are concerned.

So, where does that leave the Democrats? To get the requisite number of votes, the leaders have to cobble together a majority coalition in which some party moderates and liberals likely do not participate. This is an extremely tricky procedure. It's not as straightforward as saying something like, "Kathy Dahlkemper (D - Erie, PA) is the median voter. So, let's write the bill for her." Doing that might lose the left flank, so the leaders have to watch them as well to make sure they are still on board. They have to do this individually in both chambers, then all at once after the conference bill is produced. Additionally, there might be no second chances here. If they invest their efforts in a bill that ultimately falls short - there might not be sufficient willpower among the rank-and-file to start again.

As I said, the key issue appears to be the public option. This is why triggers and co-ops are being discussed. Leaders are looking to water down the public option enough so that the requisite number of moderates can be brought on board, but not so much that the left flank leaves the coalition. If they cannot find some middle ground, they are not going to get a comprehensive reform package - seeing as how they have already lost almost all of the Republican Party.

With this in mind, here's the question: what did last night's speech contribute to finding a solution? I'd say that the answer is nothing. The President (once again) refused to get his hands dirty on this issue. He praised the public option to the hilt, rhetoric intended for the progressives, then he hinted that it could be ditched, rhetoric intended for the moderates. At some point in the policymaking process, a choice will have to be made. It was not made last night, which means that this was a governing opportunity lost.

President Obama clearly aspires to be a great president, like FDR and Lincoln. Last night he framed the health care debate by confidently placing himself at the end of a list of Presidents that begins with a leader so consequential his visage is on Mount Rushmore. Here's something he should know about the great ones, who have a few key features in common: they know their political parties like the backs of their hands, and they know how to guide them to policy success, much as a good business executive guides her employees to profitability. If this President does not learn how to manage the factions within his own party - he will not be remembered as a great President. "Rah-rah" speeches such as last night's are sure to be part of any good management strategy, but they are far from sufficient. The President is going to have to do more.

-Jay Cost