He may be the president, but it’s not entirely his call

HE MAY BE THE PRESIDENT, BUT IT’S NOT ENTIRELY HIS CALL…. The NYT has an editorial today on President Obama’s upcoming speech on health care to a joint session of Congress. The Times urges the White House not to “yield on core elements of reform.”

There’s been quite a bit of similar talk of late, about the steps the president must take (or avoid taking) in his speech, in his negotiations, in his interviews, etc. Whether health care reform happens — and just as importantly, whether reform comes in the form of a good piece of legislation — is, we’re told, a question of what Obama does next. He’s the leader, and the effort will rise or fall based on his demands.

I’m not sure this is true.

To be sure, Obama matters. Indeed, the reason an ambitious reform package is even on the table right now is because he put it there. And it’s tempting to think the president, with an electoral mandate, reasonably strong approval ratings, and a like-minded Congress, can have exactly the kind of reform package he wants. Obama, one would like to think, should be calling the shots.

But Congress has its own ideas, especially when there’s an ideologically-diverse Democratic majority with plenty of conservatives. Jonathan Chait recently argued that it’s the legislative branch, not the executive, that’s at the heart of the process.

The sense most people have of the health care debate is that it’s great drama in which President Obama is the central player. All the big news has centered around hints and whispers about what the White House wants. They’re abandoning the public plan! They’re standing by the public plan! They’re giving up on bipartisanship! The press has covered the story as if Obama is Moses and we’re waiting for him to come down from the mountaintop.

This is totally wrong. The Senate is what controls the process. That’s the chokepoint for any health care bill. The question isn’t how badly Obama wants a public plan, or how much he cares about bipartisanship. It’s whether moderate to conservative Democrats in the Senate will filibuster a bill that has a public plan or lacks GOP support.

I think the House represents a pretty significant hurdle — compromise in one direction and lose the left, compromise in the other and lose the Blue Dogs — but the emphasis on Congress strikes me as correct.

When the president speaks to a joint session this week, a whole lot of viewers will be waiting for the words “public option” to be uttered, and will feel dejected if they’re not. But let’s not forget that Obama has endorsed a public option repeatedly in recent months — in speeches, in town-hall events, in weekly addresses, in media interviews — and lawmakers who like the idea still like the idea, while lawmakers who don’t still don’t.

Ezra Klein recently noted that that FDR, Truman, Nixon, Carter, and Clinton all tried to reform health care, and all of them came up short. “[I]t’s not a matter of presidential messaging, or toughness, or will, or strategy,” Ezra said, adding, “The executive simply has limited power here.”

I’m generally loath to agree with Ross Douthat, and this item from a couple of weeks ago got several points wrong, but this argument rang true:

[T]he health care wrestling match is less a test of Mr. Obama’s political genius than it is a test of the Democratic Party’s ability to govern. This is not the Reagan era, when power in Washington was divided, and every important vote required the president to leverage his popularity to build trans-party coalitions. Fox News and Sarah Palin have soapboxes, but they don’t have veto power. Mr. Obama could be a cipher, a nonentity, a Millard Fillmore or a Franklin Pierce, and his party would still have the power to pass sweeping legislation without a single Republican vote. […]

If the Congressional Democrats can’t get a health care package through, it won’t prove that President Obama is a sellout or an incompetent. It will prove that Congress’s liberal leaders are lousy tacticians, and that its centrist deal-makers are deal-makers first, poll watchers second and loyal Democrats a distant third. And it will prove that the Democratic Party is institutionally incapable of delivering on its most significant promises.

You have to assume that on some level Congress understands this — which is why you also have to assume that some kind of legislation will eventually pass.

If it doesn’t, President Obama will have been defeated. But it’s the party, not the president, that will have failed.

The same week, Matt Yglesias added, “[L]ooking back at American history, it’s not only Clinton who failed to accomplish comprehensive health-care reform — his effort joined reform charges by FDR, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter on the ash heap of history. Johnson, arguably the most accomplished legislator in American history, was too scared to try and brought us Medicare and Medicaid instead. It defies plausibility to suggest that president after president after president is blundering or inept. Rather, we should just admit the obvious — people keep trying and failing to reform the health-care system because reform is hard to do.”

It’s worth noting that the procedural landscape recently changed with Ted Kennedy’s passing. The Senate Democratic caucus went from 60 votes — in theory, “filibuster proof” — to 59. But let’s not forget that even with 60, reform wasn’t smooth sailing. The “filibuster proof” majority still included names like Nelson, Conrad, Baucus, Landrieu, Lieberman, Bayh, and Lincoln. And now that the “filibuster proof” majority has slipped by one vote, it’s that much more difficult. Yes, reconciliation remains an option, but it’s wrought with its own procedural difficulties.

The president will, I’m sure, help lay down some benchmarks this week. Just as important, he’ll present the highest-profile reform sales pitch to the public that the nation has seen in 16 years, which will hopefully generate some added demand and momentum for the larger effort.

But there are some big questions to be answered in September, and “What will Obama say to Congress?” is just one. The list also includes, “How many Dems will support a Republican filibuster?,” “What can and cannot be done through reconciliation?,” “How many Blue Dogs will balk at reform?,” and “How many liberal House Dems are prepared to vote ‘nay” on reform if the bill falls short of their expectations?”

The president’s role in answering these four questions is limited.