WASHINGTON -- As President Obama struggles to defend his health-care insurance law amid a serious enrollment snarl, the reality of divided government challenges the view that such a split in authority and responsibility is a good thing.
The argument that too much power in the hands of one party is a danger to the functioning of a democracy seems an empty lament these days, when not enough power repeatedly hinders significant legislative accomplishment by a president.
Mitt Romney signed the health-care insurance state law on which Obama's plan was modeled, backed by a Democratic legislature.
Introducing the president, the state's current governor, Democrat Deval Patrick, cited the bipartisan cooperation in the Massachusetts legislature that was contrary to what Obama encountered in 2010. Congressional Republicans voted en masse against the president's plan and have continued to oppose it ever since. Patrick introduced members of the coalition "who came together to invent health care reform in Massachusetts and then, importantly, stuck together to refine it as we moved forward."
Throwing a life preserver to Obama in his present difficulties, Patrick noted that when the Bay State legislators "learned a hard lesson or hit a wall, (they) stuck together and with each other. ... Our launch seven years ago was not flawless, ... Our provider searches were not good, and the website was a constant work in progress over the first few years." Then Patrick added: "Any of this sound familiar, Mr. President?"
The governor voiced Obama's own gripe about how the bipartisanship of the Massachusetts experience has faded at the federal level, noting that "the same folks who pretend to be outraged about the website not working didn't want the ACA (Affordable Care Act) to work in the first place."
That introduction enabled the president to note that Massachusetts also had growing pains in implementing its plan. For himself, Obama said, there were "no excuses" for his own law's glitches and he took "full responsibility for making sure it gets fixed ASAP."
At the same time, Obama piggy-backed on Patrick's slap at the law's Republican foes, saying "there are others that are so locked into the politics of this thing that they won't lift a finger to help their own people. ... Because if they put as much energy into making this law work as they did in attacking the law, Americans would be better off."
Obama attacked "bad-apple insurers" who previously offered inadequate coverage and were now forced to upgrade benefits. But that charge did not free him from having to backtrack on his own widely touted claim -- that if Americans liked the health care plan they already had, they would be able to keep it, and "no one will take it away, no matter what."
It turns out that many private insurers have notified their purchasers they will be losing their existing plan because it didn't meet the new federal law's requirements. Obama accused them of "being grossly misleading" if they were "peddling the notion that insurers are cancelling people's plan without mentioning that almost all the insurers are encouraging people to join better plans" with the same or another carrier at the new public marketplaces, sometimes at cheaper prices.
That contention is not likely to assuage the hordes of previously insured Americans who took at face value Obama's categorical assurance that no one would take away their plan "no matter what." Once again, a politician's campaign promise will have fallen flat to those ears.
That sort of loosely made political point can get even an orator as persuasive as Barack Obama in hot water. Hindered by divided government in which the opposition has enough power to stymie a president's most determined objectives, a president can ill afford to make pledges he can't literally keep.
As a result, Obama must not only watch his tongue now in what he pledges. He must also work to persuade voters in the congressional elections next November to end the divided government by returning the House to Democratic control.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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