NPR logo What's At Stake In The Health Care Conference


What's At Stake In The Health Care Conference

No one in Washington thinks there's much consensus to be found between Democrats and Republicans at this point in the health care debate. But politically speaking, there's plenty at stake for both President Obama and the GOP in Thursday's meeting on health care.

For President Obama: Thursday's meeting provides the president with an opportunity to showcase two things that voters say they want from Washington: transparency and bipartisanship. He'll also get to highlight the popular parts of his own plan and — he hopes — show that the Republicans' plan is either nonexistent or deficient.

But the fact that Obama has to do this at all — trying once again to resuscitate his No. 1 domestic priority — shows the limits of his consensus-seeking leadership style. Indeed, the real audience for the summit is the president's own party on Capitol Hill. Because barring a bipartisan miracle Thursday, the president will have to pass a health care bill with Democratic votes alone.

To do that, says Bill Galston, a former policy adviser under President Clinton, Obama will have to get in touch with his inner arm-twister, ala Lyndon Johnson:

"That very, very simple task will be at the center of the Obama presidency for the next few weeks," Galston says. "A substantial portion of the credibility of the administration and of the president's leadership itself is riding on the outcome."

For Congressional Republicans: Republicans will tell you their challenge on Thursday is tough: Convince Americans that the Democrats' plan is no good, but avoid coming off as the party of "no."

Republicans are making the argument that they reject the president's plan because the American people reject it. "What we're trying to do is find out why the president wants to continue to ignore the American people," says House Republican Whip Eric Cantor.

The GOP cites polls to back its claims — including one from Newsweek that found 52 percent of Americans are disappointed with Obama's handling of health care, and another from the Pew Research Center that showed a majority generally oppose the health care overhaul as it stands now.

But polls suggest other trends are at play, too — for example, that more Americans trust the president to solve health care problems more than they do Republicans (ABC News/Washington Post poll), and think that Democrats could do a better job at overhauling health care (Pew Research Center). And many recent polls have shown that respondents who are generally wary of Obama's plan often show strong support of most of its distinct pieces.

All of which makes Thursday's health care meeting both an opportunity and a risk for Republicans. They have a chance to position themselves as being more in touch with average Americans. But by choosing to highlight voters' discontent over their desire for real change in the system, Republicans risk looking like they're a big part of the problem — which is, after all, how the Democrats furiously try to paint them.

With reporting by NPR's Mara Liasson and Andrea Seabrook.