Politics

President Obama bets his healthcare reform on nationally televised debate with Republicans

By Branko Brkic 9 February 2010

Betting that a challenge to Republicans to hold a joint summit on health care reform can help turn the tide on his signature healthcare reform proposals, US President Barack Obama challenged his opposition to join an unscripted, televised debate on healthcare on 25 February. And knowing that he's best when his back is to the wall, he'll probably pulp them.

Obama used an interview with newscaster Katy Couric on a Super Bowl pre-game show watched by many tens of millions of Americans to offer Republicans a chance to bring forward their best ideas on how to cover more Americans with healthcare and fix the health insurance system.

In making this offer, Obama made good on his pledge, reiterated in his State of the Union, speech to continue pushing for major healthcare reforms, even if it pushed his popularity southwards. Obama may also be betting on the results of recent surveys that say that the more Americans know about proposed healthcare plans, the more they tend to sympathise with and support them. The recent election of Republican Scott Brown to the senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy for decades has now pushed Democrats into needing at least one Republican senate vote to ensure passage of their healthcare measure.

Making the best of this surprise offer, House Republican leader John Boehner said he was “pleased that the White House finally seems interested in a real, bipartisan conversation on healthcare. The best way to start on real, bipartisan reform would be to scrap those bills and focus on the kind of step-by-step improvements that will lower healthcare costs and expand access.”

Obama’s high-profile move is designed to give Americans a front-row seat on open give-and-take over health care issues, without at the same time allowing the discussion to get mired in reporting on complex parliamentary manoeuvres and thereby risk generating new constituent pressure in favour of the measure. This would also put the onus on the Republicans to offer actual ideas on healthcare, rather than simply opposing the Democratic Party’s proposed plan on cost or the bogeyman of “government control of healthcare”. In addition, it could demonstrate that Democrats and Republicans could work together to get things done.

The idea for this meeting is part of a new White House strategy to engage congressional Republicans in actual policy negotiations, to force them to come to the table for a share of the burden of governing, and to put more intense scrutiny on Republican initiatives and proposals.

The push for this debate came after Obama had a televised 90-minute question-and-answer session with Republicans on 29 January this year – which the White House believes was a critical success for Obama. The risk for Obama from this upcoming debate is how much — if any — he would be willing to compromise on the plans and concepts Democrats have already agreed on in their congressional deliberations. 

As they say at the Super Bowl, “Stay tuned and don’t touch that dial.”

By J. Brooks Spector

For more, read the Washington Post, the New York Times and Slate.

WATCH: President Obama’s full Q&A session at House Republiccam Conference in Baltimore,

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