A few hundred words



President Obama's State of the Union speech was studded with newsy passages - shout-outs for nuclear power (when was the last time a Democrat did that?) and capital-gains tax cuts (shades of George H.W. Bush) and partial domestic spending freezes (we hear you, Massachusetts) and community college revitalization (important to the children of modest-income families) and open military service for gay people (one sentence, but finally)...plus a verbal smackdown of the corporate-friendly judicial activists swaddled in their robes just a few feet away.

Nevertheless, what struck me most were these numbers: 7127 and 516.

His speech ran for 7127 words. Yet the issue that has dominated policy and political discussions over the past year (seemingly to the exclusion of almost everything else), the issue on which Obama has hoped to base his legacy, was mentioned in a mere 516 words. It came up roughly at the midpoint of the speech, and quickly vanished.

Basically, Obama treated health care reform as if it was a fragment of day-old lettuce in an overstuffed deli club sandwich.

Which tells us plenty about how well he fared during his first year in office. He briefly attempted last night to diagnose what has gone wrong: "This is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse trading, this process left most Americans wondering what's in it for them."

There's a lot to unpack in those three sentences. He's right that he should have explained it more clearly. As I've previously detailed in this space, he has sometimes rolled out mind-numbing 10-minute responses to the press corp's health care questions. In this culture, you need to communicate a "complex issue" in digestible soundbites. Republicans are brilliant at that, Democrats demonstrably less so. Obama has appeared to assume that if he talks like a policy professor, he can sway the people. Not.

He also appeared to lament "all the lobbying and horse trading," and how bad that looked. Here's some breaking news that might come as a shock to the ahistorical multitudes: Lobbying and horse trading and secret backroom dealmaking have been prominent features of the legislative process since politicians rode to Washington in stagecoaches. George W. Bush and the ruling GOP perpetuated these traditions all the time (on the bloated drug prescription bill, on the various earmark-stuffed budgets), and it's a testament to the current Republicans' talking-point skills that they have persuaded so many credulous people that these practices have somehow been invented in the here and now by Obama and the Democrats.

Still, Obama's original error was to raise expectations, by suggesting during his campaign that he would never engage in, or condone, such practices. Voters should never take such suggestions seriously. That dreamy stuff doesn't mean squat when it's time to grind the sausage. That's not how power works. Back in the mid-'60s, Lyndon Johnson achieved great things with his Great Society domestic agenda in part because he worked the backrooms and cajoled reluctant lawmakers by giving them pork for the folks back home - either that, or he threatened them by vowing not to give them pork.

Anyway, Obama last night did his quick diagnosis of what went wrong for health reform in 2009, before pivoting to its prospects in '10. This seemed like an important moment in the speech. Hundreds of Democrats have already taken difficult votes on the signature issue of our time; reform seemed poised for final passage until Massachusetts pulled the lever for the new It Guy. If reform goes down in '10, Obama and the Democrats can kiss goodbye to the liberal voters, because those folks will sit out the November midterm elections en masse, having been rightly convinced that there's no point in voting for a hapless crew that can't deliver.

So, what would Obama say next in the speech? Would he show leadership, and point a way forward?

"I will not walk away (from this issue), and neither should the people in this chamber."

OK, that was a start...he wants to persevere...

"As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we've proposed....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. Here's what I ask of Congress, though: Do not 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."

The flatulent sound I hear is air leaking slowly out of a balloon. Consider me underwhelmed. The president wants everyone "to take another look." He says that if anyone has some new ideas, let him know. He says that everyone should "find a way to come together and finish the job," without so much as offering a clue about what way he deems to be best. Perhaps have the House pass the Senate bill and live with the Senate provisions? Or have the House pass the Senate bill and make changes in a new bill that can pass the Senate via a parliamentary procedure requiring only 51 votes? Does he want to stick with the comprehensive approach, or would he push hard for passage in bits and pieces? He never said, never even hinted. Then he was off the subject entirely, having segued into a rap about deficit reduction.

Obama has every reason to curse the fates. If Ted Kennedy hadn't died, the current impasse would not be happening, and the obstructionist Senate Republicans would not have won by a score of 41 to 59. But it was Ted's brother who said, during the final year of his presidency in '63, "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future." Politically, and certainly morally, Obama can ill afford to bury health care reform in 516 words. It's his job now to show leadership and chart the way forward, into the future.