Obama’s Big Stick on Healthcare Reform


This doesn’t strike me as very big news, but congressional Republicans have apparently released copies of some emails that were exchanged between the White House and the pharmaceutical industry during negotiations over the healthcare reform bill. Here is Peter Baker of the New York Times:

On June 3, 2009, one of the lobbyists e-mailed Nancy-Ann DeParle, the president’s top health care adviser. Ms. DeParle sent a message back reassuring the lobbyist. Although Mr. Obama was overseas, she wrote, she and other top officials had “made decision, based on how constructive you guys have been, to oppose importation on the bill.” Just like that, Mr. Obama’s staff abandoned his support for the reimportation of prescription medicines at lower prices…. 

“There was no way we had the votes in either the House or the Senate if PhRMA was opposed — period,” said a senior Democratic official involved in the talks, referring to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry trade group.

Republicans see the deal as hypocritical. “He said it was going to be the most open and honest and transparent administration ever and lobbyists won’t be drafting the bills,” said Representative Michael C. Burgess of Texas, one of the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that is examining the deal. “Then when it came time, the door closed, the lobbyists came in and the bills were written.”

Some of the liberals bothered by the deal-making in 2009 now find the Republican criticism hard to take given the party’s long-standing ties to the pharmaceutical industry. “Republicans trumpeting these e-mails is like a fox complaining someone else raided the chicken coop,” said Robert Reich, the former labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. “Sad to say, it’s called politics in an era when big corporations have an effective veto over major legislation affecting them and when the G.O.P. is usually the beneficiary.”

This is all stuff we’ve known for years, and the new emails don’t seem to add an awful lot other than a bit of detail. The spin the Times puts on this is that it’s unusual because Obama had denounced Big Pharma so strongly during the 2008 campaign, but this strikes me as painfully naive. Attacks like this are usually done precisely to get public opinion on your side and soften up your opponents so they’ll be more likely to deal once you’re in office. As Baker writes of the negotiations themselves, “The White House depicted in the message traffic comes across as deeply involved in the give-and-take, and not averse to pressure tactics, including having Mr. Obama publicly assail the industry unless it gave in on key points.”

Right. And these are exactly the kind of hardball tactics that most liberals think Obama should engage in more often. It is, if you like, Obama acting a bit like LBJ. Perhaps, if Republicans had been genuinely willing to cooperate on healthcare and provide Obama with a few more votes, this sort of thing might not have been necessary. But they weren’t, so it was.

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