GREAT BEND, Kan. - About a month ago, health care reform was dead. The President himself acknowledged that health care reform "might die in the Congress." Insurers like Anthem and WellPoint brazenly started raising their health insurance premiums again. It was over. Back to business as usual.
When health insurance reform died on January 19 with the loss of the Jack Kennedy/Ted Kennedy Senate seat in Massachusetts, the health insurance companies began to celebrate.
Heath insurance companies announced that they had made record profits in 2009 -- totalling $12.2 billion -- a 56% increase in profits from 2008 for Cigna, Humana, Aetna, Wellpoint, and United Health. In 2009 they kicked 2.7 million Americans out of their health plans. The health insurance industry didn't seem embarrassed by these statistics at all. After all, health care reform died with Senator Kennedy on August 25, 2009. Kennedy's replacement, Republican Scott Brown, was elected on January 19, 2010. Brown's election was "game over" for health care reform.
But the president had something up his sleeve. Like a point guard in basketball, he gave a head fake ("health care reform is over"), and then did a crossover dribble, went around his defender, drove the baseline, and dunked it. The health care reform opponents were caught flat-footed, and looked desperate and foolish.
I should have known he was playing possum. Obama is clever, and he lulled the opposition by changing the subject to jobs, immigration, Israel and obesity. And then the basketball bounced from his right hand into his left hand, and he drove the lane and stuffed it. Obama used a tactic that any birthday party magician, or any sports fan, knows about: misdirection.
Even this week, on the eve of the vote, Obama was pushing five or six non-health care initiatives at once, and the solid anti-health care activists got distracted, overconfident, and are now embarrassed. By Friday night--exactly two months after Republican Scott Brown snared Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts--- health care reform became inevitable.
Yes, Obama was clever, but he really turned the corner when he started focusing on the abuses of health insurance companies. All good narratives need a hero and a villain, and Obama donned the white hat as he challenged the health insurance companies to a hasty showdown, reminiscent of Denzel Washington in the film "John Q." Obama's salesmanship was like that of a preacher man -- reminiscent of his halcyon days of the campaign.
Obama went from being the distracted, overwhelmed, professor-president, to a guy who wanted to win, and his quickness really showed. In the same way that the Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts snuck up on flat-footed Democrats, Obama's lightning-fast resurrection of health care reform equally snuck up on the health insurance lobby. By the time they realized what was happening, it was too late. Even Obama's recent bi-partisan health care summit seemed like a staged production, underlining the fact that health care reform would never pass.
It was interesting how the President dropped the subject of health care reform for about six weeks after the Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts. This not only lulled his opposition into overconfidence, it reminded Americans that there is only one thing worse than Obama's health care plan, and that's the plan we have now. People remembered how bad the status quo really is, especially in regard to health insurance companies' raising premiums and their discrimination against those with preexisting conditions. (also known as "sick people.")
Last summer, the right wing bashing of Obama's health care overhaul was masterful and constant. Meanwhile, no one -- not even the President -- was defending the plan. Nobody was trying to sell it. The President and his party's initial "selling" of the heath care plan was abysmal. Last summer the Democrats couldn't sell beer on a troop ship.
It would be cool to believe that this was all planned, that Obama had a grand strategy all along. But the truth is, he got smoked by the Republican noise machine last summer and fall, and the loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in January jarred the President back to reality. Losing the Kennedy seat was Obama's "Bay of Pigs."
But it's interesting how he finally pulled it off. He played possum for about six weeks, did the head fake, the crossover dribble, and did a tomahawk dunk as Republicans watched him from behind. Obama may be a slow learner, but it appears he's catching on.
It may take months, or even years to see if this historic reform bill was politically smart.
Medicare, Social Security, and the Civil Rights Acts all took time before they gained bi-partisan acceptance. Obama quoted Lincoln on Saturday, but another Lincoln quote seems appropriate here: "If the end brings me out all right, what's said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference."
In due time, we will know whether Obama's health care reform "brings him out all right."
My guess is it will. And the Republicans who fought the bill will look foolish. Time will tell.
(Statistics on insurance companies in 2009 from "The Hightower Lowdown," Vol. 12., No. 3, March, 2010.)