There is a fine line between being Populist-in-Chief, a strong advocate for your policy prescriptions, and allowing yourself to be played by the opposition in a way that undermines your credibility as Chief Executive, to the detriment of your objectives.
When President Obama made health care reform a priority, he put forth a set of objectives -- "control costs, expand coverage and ensure choice" -- that are mutually incompatible. What we have seen in the last few weeks is that these desired outcomes are, in fact, coming into conflict with one another during the Washington debate. Even a government dominated by one party is hearing from constituents (like the Governors) that they are worried about the draft plans wending their way through Congress.
Just in the last few days, I have seen hints that the administration is starting to blame insurers and other interest groups for the failure of these plans to move more quickly. Not that Mr. Obama needs advice from me, but I see danger of repeating a worrisome pattern. Years ago, when the Clinton's proposed their health plan and it ran into opposition, Hillary quickly turned from being a thoughtful policy advocate to demonizing those (including insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies) who opposed her proposal. I worry that President Obama could go over the line and do the same thing.
I am not being naive in suggesting that all interest groups are acting in the national interest, nor that they are not being selfish about their concerns. (I recall raising some here, for example, but of course those are legitimate!) As I have noted before, "One person's costs are another person's income." But we also have to respect that most opposition is based on legitimate fears or philosophical objections, not the result of venality. Thus, it will be very hard to craft a coalition for this bill, and therefore the President and his people have to be cautious in their words. Stridency or demonization mainly act to help the opposition congeal and get more support.
The President did not exercise that kind of caution during the AIG bonus episode. Indeed, his behavior at the time sounded more like a member of Congress than a President, and later he had to back away from his rhetoric. This topic is a lot more complicated than that one. Its resolution will take a unity of purpose that only Mr. Obama can create and sustain by keeping people inside the tent. The best negotiators treat their opponents with the same respect as their allies and try to address their legitimate interests and create value for all constituencies.