Hours before the Senate was poised to confirm President Trump’s conservative Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett to fill the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat — paving the way for the court to potentially overturn the Obama-era Affordable Care Act — the New Yorker published an excerpt from former President Barack Obama’s upcoming memoir that details the fierce battle over his contested health care plan.
The lengthy passage rehashes the Obama administration’s attempt to win bipartisan and public support for a system that “delivered good-quality medical care to all people, regardless of their ability to pay,” as the 44th president describes it, in 2009.
And the previous POTUS admits he didn’t realize just how brutal this fight for health-care reform would be; he thought it would be an easier sell than pushing for immigration reform or climate change legislation because health care affects everyone every day.
“When I think back to those early [health care] conversations, it’s hard to deny my overconfidence,” he writes in his upcoming memoir “A Promised Land,” which hits shelves on Nov. 17. “I was convinced that the logic of health-care reform was so obvious that even in the face of well-organized opposition I could rally the American people’s support.”
“It’s hard to deny my overconfidence.”
He reveals that his then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and then-senior adviser David Axelrod were both worried about the political fallout of pushing through such a massive piece of legislation after the Great Recession. Emanuel warned him, “This can blow up in our faces,” Obama recalls, while Axelrod said, “if we lose, your Presidency will be badly weakened.”
The excerpt sees Obama calling out Republican opposition, and addressing the rise of the Tea Party and how it mirrored his own presidential campaign. He even gets candid about a couple of Republicans, in particular.
At more than 12,000 words, it’s a pretty lengthy read; here are five highlights.
Health-care reform was personal for him. Obama cites his friendship with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who died of brain cancer in August 2009, for helping to motivate his push for universal health care. Obama recalls the last time he spoke with the senator in person before his death: “This is the time, Mr. President,” Kennedy had said. “Don’t let it slip away.” And Obama also received a parting letter from Kennedy delivered after his death, which called health-care reform “the great unfinished business of our society.”
Obama also reflects on his mother passing from uterine cancer in 1995, and a health scare that he and former First Lady Michelle Obama had with their youngest daughter Sasha when she was just three months old; she had viral meningitis, which they were able to catch in time because they had health insurance and a trusted family doctor. “Passing a health-care bill wouldn’t bring my mom back,” he writes. “But it would save somebody’s mom, somewhere down the line. And that was worth fighting for.”
But Obama says Republicans were opposed to his legislative efforts from the start. “Both the politics and the substance of health care were mind-numbingly complicated,” Obama writes. And he realized that the process would involve dozens of deals and compromises that he hadn’t banked on, and that the media and the public alike would describe as “backroom deals.” Yet he says that Republicans refused to compromise or seriously consider his health care plan.
He notes that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) announced in a nationwide conference call with conservative activists that “if we’re able to stop Obama on this [health-care reform], it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”
Obama also cites Republican strategist Frank Luntz, who armed the opposition with its most effective talking point for discrediting the Affordable Care Act (ACA): calling it the government takeover of American health care. “From that point on, conservatives followed the script, repeating the phrase like an incantation,” Obama writes, noting that then-Republican minority leaders Mitch McConall and John Boehner both made the same “government takeover” argument to oppose the bill.
Obama was worried about the vulnerability of his health-care plan if it didn’t pass with bipartisan support. While Obama knew his plan could pass with Democrats running both the House and the Senate, he wanted Republican supporters to buoy the bill, as well. ”Passing something as monumental as health-care reform on a purely party-line vote would make the law politically more vulnerable down the road,” he writes.
So he details how his administration tried wooing two moderate Republicans to its side. They included Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, whom Obama describes as having a “long, hangdog face and throaty Midwestern drawl.” Grassley would “hem and haw about this or that problem he had with the bill without ever telling us what exactly it would take to get him to yes,” the former president writes.
Grassley and Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, were frequently called and invited to the White House in an attempt to gain their support. Obama writes that he told his team to tell Snowe that “she can write the whole damn bill! We’ll call it the Snowe plan. Tell her if she votes for the bill she can have the White House — Michelle and I will move to an apartment!” But Snowe ultimately voted against it. The ACA was passed on Christmas Eve 2009 with a two-thirds majority, although all of the “aye” votes were Democrats.
And Obama’s fears about the longevity of his plan have been founded. The Trump administration filed a brief earlier this year asking the Supreme Court to overturn the ACA, which will be decided by a Supreme Court that will have a 6-3 conservative majority.
He wanted to smack Republican Rep. Joe Wilson for that “You lie!” interruption. While President Obama was addressing Congress during a nationally televised health care address in September 2009, Rep. Wilson infamously shouted “You lie!” as Obama attempted to debunk the claim that his health care plan would insure undocumented immigrants.
Obama reveals that he responded by saying “not true” and continuing with his speech – but it took willpower not to do more. “I was tempted to exit my perch, make my way down the aisle, and smack the guy in the head,” Obama writes. And while he notes that politicians on both sides of the aisle condemned the heckling, and Wilson later apologized for the breach in decorum, donations to Wilson’s reelection campaign spiked afterward. “Apparently, for many Republican voters out there, he was a hero, speaking truth to power,” Obama writes. “They had demonized me and, in doing so, had delivered a message to all Republican office-holders: when it came to opposing my Administration, the old rules no longer applied.”
Obama had “grudging respect” for the Tea Party. Although he describes the Tea Party, which rose into prominence the summer of 2009, as “an organized effort to marry people’s honest fears about a changing America with a right-wing political agenda,” he also recognized the movement’s appeal for working- and middle-class white Americans who had suffered from sluggish wages, rising costs and the loss of steady blue collar work for decades. “For those already predisposed toward conservative ideas, the notion that my policies were designed to help others at their expense — that the game was rigged and I was part of the rigging — must have seemed entirely plausible,” he writes.
What’s more, he saw the parallels between the populist Tea Party movement and his own political campaign. “I also had a grudging respect for how rapidly Tea Party leaders had mobilized a strong following and managed to dominate the news coverage, using some of the same social-media and grassroots-organizing strategies we had deployed during my own campaign,” he writes. “I’d spent my entire political career promoting civic participation as a cure for much of what ailed our democracy. I could hardly complain, I told myself, just because it was opposition to my agenda that was now spurring such passionate citizen involvement.”
The former president’s memoir “A Promised Land,” which is being published by The Crown Publishing Group, is the first of two volumes that Obama is writing about his time in the Oval Office. The first book focuses on his early political career through mid-2011.