Does President Obama govern by offhand remarks?

We’ve just seen the turmoil caused by President Obama’s off-the-cuff red line for Syria.

The president with the incontinent mouth handed his mess over to Congress at the last minute, but for a while it appeared he was going to rain tiny missiles on Syria just because he’d said something dumb. Unfortunately, even tiny missiles can have a drastic effect in the Middle East.

Now, a shocking story in today’s Politico (“Barack Obama’s Health-Care Conversion”) indicates that President Obama’s hated reform of the health care system may have had similar origins: remarks that had not been thought-out before being uttered.

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.

It seems that Senator Obama was thinking about turning down an invitation to speak before a progressive group in Illinois. Advisers Robert Gibbs and Jon Favreau hit on something that would make him look “more prepared” than he was. “Why not just announce his intention to pass universal health care by the end of his first term?”

“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.”

Politico writes:

The consequences of that offhand promise are still reverberating. Its greatest test lies just ahead on Oct. 1, opening day for enrollment in Obamacare. A flop would be nothing short of the greatest political and policy cataclysm of his career and a mortal blow to a core Democratic principle that government can still do big things.

The tortured process that led to passage of the Affordable Care Act has been amply documented. Less chronicled is just how Obama gradually fell in love with an ugly-duckling issue, and his slow descent from ambivalent detachment to emotional investment in a cause his aides initially dismissed as “Hillary’s thing.”…

Obama’s legacy on health care began with the pressure to say something, anything, at the progressive health conference a year before the first presidential primary votes were cast. He needed to keep up with Clinton, his party’s front-runner, and Edwards, who was trying to carve out space to Clinton’s left as the party’s liberal standard-bearer.

Favreau, who would go on to become the chief White House speechwriter, said they wanted Obama “to say something bold and ambitious about health care.”

The story recounts how in 2007 the future president “staggered through” a discussion on health-care reform with Hillary Clinton that left observers convinced that he was “out of his depth.” Clinton aides even giggled, according to Politico. Obama began to bone up on health care and collect those personal (and often unverified) stories about health-care with which he regales us.

The real moment when Obama became committed, however, according to Politico, was when the late Senator Ted Kennedy said he would endorse Obama only if he would make health-care reform his top priority, even more than the ailing economy.   

It was a bit of a bluff, former Kennedy aides tell POLITICO: The aging Massachusetts senator, who would soon be felled by a brain tumor, probably would have backed Obama anyway.

Pushing through health-care reform so quickly and so determinedly, with absolutely no input from Republicans, who, contrary to what President Mouth says, constantly have put forward plans for incremental reform over the years, is what gave us the current atmosphere in Washington and saddled us with a health-care system that is going to ruin the world’s best medical system and cause untold harm for individuals.

Or as Lucianne Goldberg puts it:

A clueless candidate, a flip remark, and “poof” five years later your doctor disappears.