Since the fiasco of 1994, health care has been a drum Democrats have banged away on at election time with the more or less open understanding that it would be safely stowed away again after November. But now we're at a point where we should soon see whether this is an issue that can ever be conquered or dealt with in any real way. The Dems went into this round with as many advantages as they're likely ever to have -- a president with commanding authority, big majorities in Congress and a mood in the country that seemed decidedly favorable if not quite sold on the prospect of major reform. The one big exception to this favorable picture was the near collapse of the country's economy (which ain't nothing), but which the White House has nonetheless (and with real merit) argued is a reason for moving now on health care reform rather than delay.
But a series of developments over just the last couple of weeks have transformed this from what seemed like almost a done deal to a really, really tough challenge. Health care is a really complex issue. And the entrenched interests are probably as powerful as any other issue a president can face. Let's not pretend it's even close to easy, ever. But conservative Democrats are digging in on the cost front; the insurance companies have a hold over a lot of senators and representatives on the public option; and for a number of reasons, the president's own popularity has come down significantly.
It is definitely true that the president is still quite popular. But his numbers are now the sort that don't necessarily scare elected officials on the margins or give reassurance to House Democrats in marginal districts. And let's face it, a lot of these members of Congress are simply owned by different parts of the health care industry -- something that a president needs a lot of public support to overcome.
This is a clearly testing time for Obama. But much more for the Democrats. If not now, really, when? Is the hill just too steep?