Getting health care back on track?

GETTING HEALTH CARE BACK ON TRACK?…. Everyone in, near, or around the debate over the future of health care reform watched very closely last night, waiting for signals in President Obama’s State of the Union address about the road ahead. Given some of the remarks from lawmakers earlier in the week, the fate of reform would be heavily influenced by what the president had to say.

So, did the president single-handedly save the struggling initiative with one section of one speech? Probably not, but that would be unrealistic anyway. Obama did, however, give reform a much-needed boost, and with some meaningful follow-up, the measure may yet succeed.

There’s been some debate over the last 12 hours about whether the president did enough. It’s not an unreasonable question — the speech did not give lawmakers “marching orders,” did not set a deadline for passage, and did not lay out a specific strategy for what to do next. But I’m not sure that’s what the State of the Union is for, exactly.

Obama instead chose to “clear a few things up” about why reform is necessary, and why the Democratic plan has merit. (If he weren’t still trying to get the proposal through, he wouldn’t have bothered presenting a defense of it.) Indeed, there was a fairly detailed recitation of some of the key, easy-to-understand benefits of the bill that’s so close to passage, and an explanation of why things will get worse if reform fails.

He wrapped up the point by urging passage.

“I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber.

“So, as temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we’ve proposed. There’s a reason why many doctors, nurses, and health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo. But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Let me know. Let me know. I’m eager to see it.

“Here’s what I ask Congress, though: Don’t walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let’s get it done.”

Soon after, in a related reminder, the president told Democratic lawmakers, “I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.”

Now, I’ve seen some suggest that by inviting others to present “a better approach,” Obama was signaling his willingness to accept a watered-down bill. I actually thought it was the opposite. He set the goal posts in place — lower premiums, deficit reduction, coverage for the uninsured, strengthening Medicare, strong consumer protections — knowing full well that reform’s critics can’t present a plan that will meet these tests.

And what about the reactions? Brian Beutler talked to several Democratic lawmakers who said the president’s remarks helped, but the House is still looking to the Senate to act, and vice versa. Jonathan Cohn added, “I canvassed about ten key sources on Capitol Hill, focusing on the members, staff, and advocates most committed to passing reform. Every one (literally) seemed relatively pleased and some seemed very pleased, even without the step-by-step instructions…. Obama gave reform advocates the support, and cover, they needed.”

So, health care reform lives, at least for now. The White House is going to have to do more in the coming days to keep the effort on track, and pressure on Congress from the public will have to continue, but at a minimum, the State of the Union kept hope alive.