The most important red line of Barack Obama’s presidency was scrawled hastily in January 2007, a few weeks before he even announced he was running for president.
Soon-to-be-candidate Obama, then an Illinois senator, was thinking about turning down an invitation to speak at a big health care conference sponsored by the progressive group Families USA, when two aides, Robert Gibbs and Jon Favreau, hit on an idea that would make him appear more prepared and committed than he actually was at the moment.
Why not just announce his intention to pass universal health care by the end of his first term?
Thus was born Obamacare, a check-the-box, news-cycle expedient that would ultimately define a president.
“We needed something to say,” recalled one of the advisers involved in the discussion. “I can’t tell you how little thought was given to that thought other than it sounded good. So they just kind of hatched it on their own. It just happened. It wasn’t like a deep strategic conversation.” . . .
He probably wasn’t going to get elected anyway, the team concluded. Why not go big?
He didn’t develop anything in support of that pledge until months later when he was savaged in a debate with Hillary Clinton:
Even after his pledge, though, it took months for Obama to buy in. In March 2007, he found himself on the same stage with a highly confident Clinton at another health care forum, this one sponsored by the Service Employees International Union in Las Vegas.
Obama staggered through a discussion that left policy wonks convinced that he was out of his league, particularly when compared to Clinton, arguably the nation’s premier expert on health care after her unsuccessful attempt to enact reform in the 1990s.
While she dominated, he was confronted by an audience member who asked why he didn’t have a health care plan yet. He responded that his campaign was only eight weeks old and promised to come up with one soon.