Time to deliver

TIME TO DELIVER…. In his weekly address yesterday, President Obama talked almost exclusively about health care reform, arguing, “Fixing what’s wrong with our health care system is no longer a luxury we hope to achieve — it’s a necessity we cannot postpone any longer.” He added, “It’s time to deliver.”

The comments were as much directed at himself as the rest of the political world. While the president has been largely content to intentionally keep some distance between the White House and congressional Democrats shaping the legislation, as the process unfolds, Obama’s role is poised to get much bigger.

We got a big hint of this a few days ago, when the president issued a letter to relevant Senate committee chairmen about his policy priorities, and we’re about to see Obama take a far more active — and public — role this summer.

After months of insisting he would leave the details to Congress, President Obama has concluded that he must exert greater control over the health care debate and is preparing an intense push for legislation that will include speeches, town-hall-style meetings and much deeper engagement with lawmakers, senior White House officials say.

Mindful of the failures of former President Bill Clinton, whose intricate proposal for universal care collapsed on Capitol Hill 15 years ago, Mr. Obama until now had charted a different course, setting forth broad principles and concentrating on bringing disparate factions — doctors, insurers, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, labor unions — to the negotiating table.

But Mr. Obama has grown concerned that he is losing the debate over certain policy prescriptions he favors, like a government-run insurance plan to compete with the private sector, said one Democrat familiar with his thinking. With Congress beginning a burst of work on the measure, top advisers say, the president is determined to make certain the final bill bears his stamp.

“Ultimately, as happened with the recovery act, it will become President Obama’s plan,” the White House budget director, Peter R. Orszag, said in an interview. “I think you will see that evolution occurring over the next few weeks. We will be weighing in more definitively, and you will see him out there.”

Good. With the reconciliation process making it impossible for Republicans to filibuster the initiative, a reform measure is likely to pass. Whether the reform is as good as it can be will depend largely on the president’s leadership, his ability to persuade the public, his skills in debunking the critics’ attacks, and his willingness, to borrow an Aaron Sorkin line, to take his approval rating out for a spin to see what it can do.

His hope is to provide what his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, called “air cover” for lawmakers to adopt his priorities. It is a gamble by the White House that Mr. Obama can translate his approval ratings into legislative action.

“Obviously,” Mr. Emanuel said, “the president’s adoption of something makes it easier to vote for, because he’s — let’s be honest — popular, and the public trusts him.”

On the public option, for example, Obama’s willingness to “put some muscle behind the policy” will likely make all the difference. The more the president sells it, the better its chances are.