Obama gets ready to risk it all

My new column for the FT is about healthcare reform. It argues that the administration should press on--though the political risk, thanks to the Democrats' own ineptitude, is huge.

Mr Obama has stacked the odds against himself. For such a shrewd campaigner, his sustained inattention to the popular politics of healthcare reform has been amazing. He has ended up, from his own point of view, with the worst of both worlds.

On the one hand, the Democrats' plan is more centrist than he would have wished - an outcome forced on him by moderates in his own party. On the other, this centrist reform is unpopular with the middle of the electorate, because the president and his party have made so little effort to explain or justify it.

It is surely too late for the administration to bring Republicans on board. The Democrats' thinking is now too fixed. Asking for fresh ideas after a year of bitter wrangling over a hard-won blueprint is bizarre. Anyway, why should the opposition abandon its obstructionism now? With disaster looming for Democrats in November, the Republican strategy of "just say no" is working. Wrong in the larger scheme of things, Republicans are right that this week's attempt at bipartisanship is mere political theatre. That is how voters will perceive it too...

Turning back is still an option, of course, though most Democrats have convinced themselves otherwise. With November in mind, their wisest course may be to start again - this time, perhaps, with a bipartisan commission like the one the president has just created to look at budget policy. Whether that approach would lead anywhere, though, must be doubtful. If you ask which course has the best chance of moving health reform forward, the answer must be to press on.

For that huge gamble to succeed, and to have any hope of staving off disaster in November, Mr Obama and his squabbling, tone-deaf, self-wounding party would then have to turn to the country and explain their plan. Odd, you might think, to have left that so late. Some traditions die hard. Even when they are right, Democrats have a knack for getting it wrong.