Free Markets, Free People
Obama’s healthcare joint session may have been a sign of desperation
In any contest, you have certain assets, and your strategy is to use the assets in the most efficient and effective way you can find. In war simulations, for example, you normally don’t use offensive units for defense or vice versa.
But there is a point at which that breaks down. Anyone who has played war simulation games, such as Empire or Civilization, is familiar with the “edge of defeat” problem.
When it looks like you are about to be defeated, you use whatever assets you have at hand because your choices start to go away. Some people call this the use-it-or-lose-it point. If you are defeated, your assets don’t matter anyway, so you might as well use them to try and stave off defeat, even if your odds are not very good and you are using them in normally inappropriate ways.
Addressing a joint session of Congress is one of Obama’s assets. Using it ineffectively degrades the ability to use it again. If he did one once a week, or even once a month, then those speeches would get no more attention than the weekly radio address.
Looking at last night, I couldn’t help but feel Obama used that asset ineffectively. He got some juice out of it, but not much, and even the Democrats concede that it was not a game changer.
That asset is now gone for the purposes of the healthcare debate. If he tries to pull it out before sometime next year, it will be mostly ignored. So I’ve been wondering why he decided to commit that asset, even with a speech that didn’t break any new ground or attempt to dramatically change the terms of the debate in any way I can see.
The most likely possibility is that is that Obama’s overconfidence led him to believe he could get more mileage out of the asset than he did. He may be pretty out of touch with the real source of opposition to his healthcare wishes. He may think it’s just a matter of misunderstanding, and that if we all understood what he wanted better, we would just go along with it. I hate to think he’s that out of touch, but I have to rate that the most likely explanation.
But what if he understands that the opposition has hardened? What if he knows that the bill is in trouble, and he’s caught between the liberal caucus insisting on a public option and the Blue Dogs insisting they won’t vote for it, and just doesn’t know what to do? What if he knows that he’s at the edge of defeat on this, and thinks it will be the defining contest of his presidency?
In that case, it would make complete sense to use any asset at his disposal to try and salvage a win. Using the joint session asset to make a routine speech would be scraping the bottom of the barrel, but what other assets does he have that he hasn’t already used? He used up his strong-arming on many House members over cap-and-trade. He used up his high-pressure sales option in the summer. He used up all his influence with the industry to get concession from them, both monetary and that they would not publicly fight him. (I am wondering where that $150 million pledge by PhRMA went, though.)
If Obama is half as smart as his supporters say, the joint session last night could be a sign of desperation, an indication that he knows he’s losing on this and just can’t think of any other asset to use.
The preferred metaphor for his speech is “doubling down”. But you normally double down when you think you’ve got a pretty good chance of winning. I think a “Hail Mary” metaphor might be more applicable.
If true, that doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to lose. Sometimes the Hail Mary works. It just doesn’t work that often.