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Jamie Stiehm
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11 Apr 2014
Civil Rights and Cherry Blossoms

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As a Lady Leaves Obama, the Dream Shall Never Die

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WASHINGTON — The Kansas lady, whom President Obama admires, brought her brand of cool dignity here, which this town could not crack for over five years. The 65-year-old embraced Obama in an elegant White House farewell. But, simply put, she was not up to her very hard job, part of which was to carry on a bright public conversation.

Canny Hillary Clinton proved Obama's best Cabinet pick, so far, not least because she is so plugged in. Obama, who likes to float above the political fray, is best served by people who are right in the thick of the hurly-burly.

By contrast, the Hon. Kathleen Sebelius, who just left her post as the Health and Human Services Secretary, lacked brio, luster and political knowhow. Here she had a historic destiny to accomplish. Universal health care, the Democratic dream for generations, was finally written in the words of the Affordable Health Act, aka Obamacare. A major moment she did not meet well.

Oh, it got done in the end, but the way was far from a yellow brick road. Did she infuse you or me with enthusiasm talking about exchanges? American hearts are never going to be set afire by insurance. Instead, madam, tell us stories about the seven million people who signed up for Obamacare, and the difference it will make. Counter the nasty Republican narrative with verve. Don't let things languish waiting on a Republican "moderate." Talk about fairness and squareness. That's just my free advice.

One thing I know for sure: Falling flat on the "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" was seen as the final knell for Sebelius. Her service as Kansas Insurance Commissioner never prepared her for that hip rough and tumble. She seemed, well, like a lovely version of the Tin Woodsman. You could almost hear the groans from the West Wing: "Really?"

I know, I know. Five years is a long time in politics and show business to keep a grand story going. And no big story, no letter home, should ever crumble into a crashed website.

Talk about a room-emptier, as they say in LA. That dealt a major blow to the president and possibly to the 2014 congressional races. I've heard it said President Clinton would never let that happen, because he would've insisted on having the online sign-up of Healthcare.gov brought before him in the Oval. Isn't it curious Obama skipped that devilish detail?

So nobody is too sad to see Sebelius go. A meeting of presidential aides broke into applause when at the news she's leaving and that Sylvia Mathews Burwell, 48, a savvy administration insider, will succeed her. She's more in step with the vigorous, intense Denis McDonough, Obama's chief of staff. The American Spectator has already called her the new captain of the Titanic.

A newcomer to the capital, Sibelius fell short on strategy, rhetoric and implementation. Friend and foe alike call it the "disastrous" rollout of health care reform.

The prevailing logic is that governors, such as Sebelius, are made of stardust and know how to get things done. (Even better, her father was a governor of Ohio.) That Washington myth, parroted by pundits, made Sebelius seem a strong choice after Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader, withdrew after a minor tax kerfuffle.

Yet at an early 2009 hearing, Daschle was lauded by both parties. Former Senate Republican leader Robert Dole, the man from Kansas, spoke firmly in his favor. It's no secret that nobody knows more substance about health care on the Hill than Daschle.

That was Obama's first mistake as president, to let Daschle go and to bring Sebelius aboard. He is paying the price for it to this day, in what economists call an "opportunity cost." Not only is his presidency imperiled, but also he lost the chance to have landmark legislation handled by a respected master of the winds and the waves of Congress.

And Daschle, an expert public speaker, might be the one to remind Obama to circle back to proud oratory in the Democratic tradition: "The dream shall never die."

In 1980, that lofty line was uttered by Senator Edward Kennedy — aptly, the champion of health care reform and one of Obama's earliest backers.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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