Paul Greenberg: Can this presidency be saved?

Everybody knows this president is in political trouble, even the president himself. For he faces a growing crisis of confidence, and it's got his name all over it: Obamacare.

Day after day, Barack Obama's "signature achievement" begins to look like his signature failure. And the more he tries to grapple with it, tweak and twist it, and generally rearrange the deck chairs on this ship still again, the more trouble he invites. And the more abject and prolix his apologies for it become, the bigger this fiasco becomes.

Thursday the president offered a hazy, temporary fix for only one part of this fine mess he's got us all into, and maybe only because it's the part that's drawn the most fire for now: forcing millions of Americans to give up the insurance they have now and still want. But other snafus are sure to be revealed.

Even if the president manages to change this law by executive fiat, as has become his wont, it remains a political, administrative and logistical nightmare. His glib assurances that some kind of Technical Surge will turn this political albatross into a political asset ... resound ever more hollow.

Millions of Americans may actually have believed his promise that they could keep their private insurance if they liked it. But that was before all those cancellation notices began arriving -- and even more may now be on the way.

The president has assured all those anxious policyholders that they really will be able to keep their insurance -- for one (1) year. After that, who knows? Which is why his latest attempt to assuage their anger might suceeed, but for only one (1) year. It'll be a year of uncertainty and anxiety, for what happens after that? The president may wind up not easing this confidence of crisis in his presidency but prolonging it.

If you think this is a political crisis, it's nothing compared to the rebuke administered to another smooth-talking president a couple of decades ago. Remember the congressional elections of 1994? They were dubbed the Republican Revolution, and for good reason. The GOP took control of both houses of Congress that year by impressive, even historic, margins. It picked up eight seats in the Senate and gained 54 in the House. And it did so by offering voters a Contract With America that promised just about a complete reversal of all the man in the White House that year had come to represent -- ever bigger and ever worse government.

The political turnaround that fateful year was more than dramatic; it was historic. Talk about a change: Before those midterm elections in 1994, Republicans hadn't held a majority in the House for 40 years -- not since the Congress that was elected alongside Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.

. . .

Elections have consequences, as this president was fond of reminding the country when he was riding high after his electoral sweep in 2008. The consequences of those congressional elections back in '94 reverberated far and wide. And our political class got the message. To cite just one example: The day after the election returns were in, a Democratic senator from Alabama named Richard Shelby announced he was now a Republican. He still is. And he hasn't faced significant opposition since.

While they were sweeping the congressional elections that year, the Republicans also won control of 20 state legislatures from the Democrats, giving them a majority of those legislatures for the first time in half a century. All told, the GOP picked up 472 legislative seats and 12 governorships that historic year.

. . .

The reaction of the president who was so thoroughly rebuked in 1994 -- Bill Clinton, the Man From Hope -- stands in marked contrast to the backing-and-filling this president has been doing as he steadily loses the confidence of the American people. Bill Clinton didn't deny defeat; he learned from it. By the next presidential election, he'd announced that "the era of big government was over," and he'd reinvented his party with a little help from his friends known as New Democrats.

Reversing course 180 degrees after those midterm elections, Democrats joined Republicans in reforming a welfare system that had been creating an underclass of dependent Americans generation after generation. Bill Clinton's party came out for balanced budgets and free trade (see NAFTA), and a stronger defense. Compare that about-face with the graceless retreat of today's Democratic administration under pressure. No wonder Barack Obama and ill-organized company face a growing crisis of confidence.

. . .

Bill Clinton and friends, aka the New Democrats, proceeded to reinvent their party after 1994 and went on to make an historic comeback. Do you think Barack Obama and his administration can? It all depends on whether they follow Bill Clinton's advice -- and example. He may have been known as Slick Willie, but there was nothing tricky about Bill Clinton's complete course-reversal midway through his first presidential term. It was forthright, clear and above all effective.

How would Bill Clinton handle this developing crisis over Obamacare? The other day he gave his successor in the White House some sound advice: Keep his promise to let Americans keep their health-care insurance if they like it. Even if the law setting up this "affordable" health-care system has to be changed. As it needs to be. Pronto.

That's just what Republicans have been pressing for in Congress, and they're picking up support from one Democratic senator after another who faces re-election -- Mark Pryor here in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, to name a few. All are sounding increasingly anxious about their chances of re-election. As they have reason to be. But so far Barack Obama is granting them only a partial, one-year reprieve -- not a complete pardon -- from the political consequences of their decisive votes for Obamacare.

This president needs to do more than just delay this crisis of confidence; he needs to end it. He can start by listening to Bill Clinton and keeping his promise. By law, not executive order. After that, you know this administration won't be able to hide still other multiplying problems with Obamacare, and its temporary fixes will bring only temporary relief. Which is why this administration needs to change its whole course, not just feint this way and that before sticking with what increasingly looks like a disaster in the making.

It'll be instructive to see how this administration reacts to this growing crisis. By apologizing (profusely) for just this one defect of so many in his prize program, the president has made a good start. It's not easy for a proud man convinced of his own superiority over us lesser mortals to face up to a great mistake. The question now is whether the president can finish the job and turn this whole, sinking craft around.

Note to Republicans: Resist the temptation to gloat. It's not becoming or useful. Remember that, when a president is in trouble, the country is, too. The president has sounded Retreat; he's offering one small step back toward a free market -- and a free society. Encourage him to take many more such steps, till Obamacare as a whole begins to fade away. Save all those I Told You So's, for now is the time to test the president's sincerity, not dismiss it. For this isn't the end of the Obamacare story. It is bound To Be Continued.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

(c) 2013 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.
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