President Obama's goal of health care reform has been hooked up to life-support systems as he prepares to make one more desperate attempt to pull it back from the brink of death.
The president's decision to remake the case for health care reform passage before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday is based on the mistaken belief that reform lost public support because it lacked a clear, compelling message. However, the centerpiece of his presidency was brought down by much bigger and far more strategic weaknesses than Mr. Obama's confusingly vague and often contradictory arguments in its behalf.
Americans instinctively rebelled against it because they do not think government can run any business efficiently and effectively, least of all the nation's complex health care system. They also believe that with the government running up trillions of dollars in new debt, we cannot afford to add yet another huge entitlement program to its bills. Americans further are deterred because of the belief that a new federally regulated health care system will rob us of the freedom to make our own medical decisions without government interference and because of the often unintended consequences that invariably flow from the nanny state.
Increasingly, as people considered what the Democratic-run Congress and Mr. Obama were contemplating and the idea of passing a trillion-dollar-plus health care plan (the real cost of which will be much larger) they quickly came to the conclusion that this did not make any fiscal sense.
Last month, the White House said the government will run a $1.5 trillion deficit this year, followed by a $1.5 trillion deficit next year, a $1.12 trillion deficit the year after that, and a nearly $1 trillion deficit the year after that.
Before Mr. Obama, the deficit never exceeded $500 billion. With the U.S. economy still in a recession and the government plunging more deeply into debt, enacting a new, monstrously expensive social-welfare spending plan sounded crazy.
But the strategic killer was the loss of public confidence that the government could run the massive health care reforms Mr. Obama had in mind. When a new CBS News poll asked voters if the government or private health insurers "could do a better job of providing healthcare coverage," just 36 percent chose government -- a decline of 14 points since June. However, nearly half, 47 percent, said the government "would do a worse job," up by 13 points since June.
To say the White House's handling of the health care debate has been a disaster is putting it mildly. Americans have turned not only against the plans the Democrats have put forward; they have turned against how the president has handled the issue and the ensuing debate. He has lost his majority on both counts.
A CNN/Opinion Research poll reported last week that Americans opposed Democrats' health care plan by 51 percent to 48 percent. Other polls showed support falling even lower.
Moreover, the declining support for a health care bill was spilling over into how Mr. Obama was dealing with the health care issue in general as the nation's chief executive. The CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 53 percent disapproved of the way he was handling the issue, a sign that it was undermining his presidency.
At the end of June, 61 percent approved of the way he was handling his job as president. By the end of last month, his approval-disapproval rating had fallen to 53 percent and 45 percent respectively.
A number of other factors were contributing to the White House train wreck on health care, and most of them were Mr. Obama's doing.
The decision to attack Americans who showed up in large numbers at hundreds of town-hall meetings during the congressional recess to vent their opposition to health care reform boomeranged, particularly among independents.
But perhaps in the end, for all his talent as an orator, Mr. Obama's failure as a communicator and a salesman also contributed to the downfall of his health care goal.
His attacks on the health-insurance industry backfired. Polls show that most Americans are satisfied with their private coverage. His attacks on surgeons as greedy, profit-conscious doctors fell with a thud. All too often, his statements about the costs of certain medical procedures proved to be untrue. He claimed AARP, the senior-citizens lobby, had endorsed his plan. It has not.
Thus, it was not surprising that the CBS News poll discovered that 60 percent overall, including 65 percent of independents, said Mr. Obama had not clearly explained his health care reform proposals.
Now the president goes before Congress in a last-ditch effort to rescue a plan that is teetering on the brink of defeat as public opposition to it and his presidency continues to rise.
He won the presidency on his claim that he would change the tone in Washington and bring opposing factions together through compromise. But the White House has been in a campaign attack mode ever since, and his own party is so divided over health care that many are ready to pull the plug.