Peggy Noonan: Obama's essential mistake was to choose health-care expansion over health-care reform.
It is now exactly a year since President Obama unveiled his health-care push and his decision to devote his inaugural year to it—his branding year, his first, vivid year.
What a disaster it has been.
At best it was a waste of history's time, a struggle that will not in the end yield something big and helpful but will in fact make future progress more difficult. At worst it may prove to have fatally undermined a new presidency at a time when America desperately needs a successful one.
In terms of policy, his essential mistake was to choose health-care expansion over health-care reform. This at the exact moment voters were growing more anxious about the cost and reach of government. The practical mistake was that he did not include or envelop congressional Republicans from the outset, but handed the bill's creation over to a Democratic Congress that was becoming a runaway train. This at the exact moment Americans were coming to be concerned that Washington was broken, incapable of progress, frozen in partisanship.
His political mistakes were myriad and perhaps can be reduced to this:
There are all sorts of harm a new president can do to his presidency. Right now, part of the job of a new president in a hypermediaized environment is harm avoidance. This sounds defensive, and is at odds with the wisdom that presidents in times of crisis must boldly go forth and break through. But it all depends on what you're being bold about. Why, in 2009, create a new crisis over an important but secondary issue when we already have the Great Recession and two wars? Prudence and soundness of judgment are more greatly needed at the moment.
New presidents should never, ever, court any problem that isn't already banging at the door. They should never summon trouble. Mr. Obama did, boldly, perhaps even madly. And this is perhaps the oddest thing about No Drama Obama: In his first year as president he created unneeded political drama, and wound up seen by many Americans not as the hero but the villain.
[Obama has] a growing credibility gap. In his speech Wednesday, demanding an "up or down" vote, the president seemed convinced and committed—but nothing he said sounded true. His bill will "bring down the cost of health care for millions," it is "fully paid for," it will lower the long term deficit by a trillion dollars.
Does anyone believe this? Does anyone who knows the ways of government, the compulsions of Congress, and how history has played out in the past, believe this? Even a little? . . . It would be a relief to have a president who could weigh in believably and make clear what his own bill says. But he seems to devote more words to obscuring than clarifying.