President Obama's advisers acknowledged Tuesday that they were unprepared for the intraparty rift that occurred over the fate of a proposed public health insurance program, a firestorm that has left the White House searching for a way to reclaim the initiative on the president's top legislative priority.
Try and put that into perspective. The White House floated the idea of backing away from the "public option" without knowing how that would play with the left wing of their own party. How's that for leadership?
The whole fiasco surrounding the White House's stance on the public option is a total failure of leadership. They floated the idea over the weekend. Then, they immediately backed away from that new position. Then, they've spent the last two days claiming that they haven't changed their stance. Secretary Sebelius proclaimed that the uproar surrounding their change in stance was due "to a slow news day". Think about that. The White House claims that they might be willing to back away from the public option. The media reports on this change in stance, and then the White House blames the media for doing its job.
We're now four days from the White House initially floating this idea and still no one knows what the position of the White House is. As late as July 19th, here's what the White House said about the public option.
[A]ny plan I sign must include an insurance exchange: a one-stop shopping marketplace where you can compare the benefits, cost and track records of a variety of plans - including a public option to increase competition and keep insurance companies honest - and choose what's best for your family.
The president was pretty clear then. Yet, here's how Robert Gibbs characterized the situation yesterday.
The goals are choice and competition. His preference is a public option. If there are other ideas, he's happy to look at them
Of course, the White House is engaging in a game of don't believe your lying eyes. In July, the public option was mandatory and now it's preferred. So, which is it? No one knows and by leaving that undefined this creates confusion and chaos. That's a failure of leadership.
Obama's failure in leadership extends far beyond simply the "public option". The president has failed to to take a stand on anything related to the bill. He laid out some broad principles and let the legislature fill in the details. Then, when that same legislature begin to fight with itself, Obama failed to step in to take a stand and control the debate. That's a failure of leadership.
Beyond this, Obama's message has constantly shifted. First, he was doing health care reform to cover the uninsured. Then, he was doing it to cut costs. Then, when the CBO countered that claim, he changed his stance from health care reform to "health insurance" reform. No one is really sure what he's trying to accomplish and that's likely because he himself doesn't know.
Worst of all, as things started to go South, Obama began pointing fingers. He blamed the media, cable news, misinformation, the protesters, etc. It's a sign of leadership to take responsibility when things go bad. It's a sign of weakness to blame everyone but yourself when things go bad. Obama is doing the latter.
What's worrisome about all this is that leadership was one of the biggest complaints made against Obama. He's an individual with a light resume up to the Presidency. Leadership was always a concern about his presidency. The fiasco surrounding the health care debate gives very strong evidence that he's simply not up to the job. He can't control the legislature, the message, and he can't create a coalition around which a piece of legislation would pass. The worst part is that the environment couldn't be easier for him. He has overwhelming majorities in both Houses, and still he can't seem to get a bill through that will pass.
The real trouble here is that once people believe you can't lead you can't do much of anything as president. Katrina was also a total failure of leadership and George Bush never recovered from that perception.
The good news is that Bill Clinton went through similar growing pains and eventually figured it out and he figured it out with a Republican legislature. We can all only hope that President Obama grows into his role as a leader because right now there is a serious failure in leadership.