These health care numbers could make a man sick

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Rick Horowitz
July 21, 2009

Suddenly, Data Man has a number of problems.

Or maybe we should put that the other way around: Suddenly, Data Man has a problem of numbers.

And now we get to see what he's made of.

Data Man goes by other names, of course, and by other numbers. The name "Barack Obama," for instance. The number "44." But Data Man will do nicely. Has there ever been a president so attuned to, so reliant on, so respectful of the pitter-patter of data points?

"Show me the facts," his every utterance suggests. "I'm cooler than ideology. I'm all about reason. I won't let my beliefs -- or your beliefs, for that matter -- trump the awesome power of evidence."
Which makes it a particularly damaging blow when the number crunchers at the Congressional Budget Office (or as it's always phrased, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office) take a look at the assortment of health-care-reform plans now floating around the Capitol and declare -- we're paraphrasing here:


Not only do the various plans now being considered fail to "bend the curve" of health-care spending downward, as the president has long insisted any plan he'd sign would have to do. According to the CBO, every one of the plans would send the curve still higher.

Oops? Oops.

And those aren't the only troublesome numbers for Data Man. There are the latest poll numbers, which show his approval ratings sliding, along with people's confidence in his ability to actually come up with a health-care solution. The lower his poll numbers go -- and a man who does facts surely knows this -- the more jittery the wobblers in his own party become.

The lower his poll numbers go, the more emboldened the other party becomes, and the more attacks they launch, and the lower his poll numbers go, and around and around and --

Unless, of course, the Republicans somehow manage to overplay their hand, and talk about defeating health-care reform in totally political terms, as the president's "Waterloo," as a defeat that would "break him." (But they'd never be that stupid, would they?)

Other number problems: The number of Congressional committee chairs who'll insist on having their fingerprints on any health-care bill that finally emerges. The number of days remaining in the calendar between now and Congress's sanctified August recess. The number of days remaining in the calendar between now and the end of the year, when politicking for 2010 kicks into high gear and the appetite for tackling difficult issues vanishes.

Other number problems: Whatever figures are in that mid-year economic report the White House has decided to sit on rather than release. Managing the information flow -- doling out the good and the bad news in the most effective (or least damaging) way -- is standard practice for any White House. But for this White

House -- Data Man's White House -- to look as if it's running away from data it doesn't like?

Big oops.

So what happens now? Does the president back off and fight another day? Does he swallow hard and accept a bill that's more politically palatable -- "No new taxes, except on millionaires!" -- but that he knows won't accomplish what he's promised it will accomplish? Does he ignore the dangerous data and simply pretend that there must be a pony in there somewhere?

Or does he somehow turn the numbers to his advantage? Does he call in the congressional leaders and say, "What you're doing isn't enough. You need to do more, even if it means casting difficult votes. Even if it means spreading the sacrifice."

Does he say to them, "I'll have your back."

And do they believe him?

Sometimes, even a Data Man has to be about more than numbers.

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