Barack Obama's election rhetoric was marked by a call for change, and when the Democrat takes office on January 20th, he promises new policies on issues ranging from healthcare reform to energy to tax cuts. But while these big ideas sound good on the campaign trail, when it comes to governing, he might want to aim smaller.
"The first rule is to hit the ground running," says Corey Cook, assistant professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. But Cook warns that Obama must walk a fine line between promises he made during the campaign and the consensus building he'll need in the center. Lucky for him, the right's bogeywoman may be willing to tread away from the left with Obama. "Let me be very clear," Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said at a press conference on Wednesday, "the new president must take the country down the middle."
Cook thinks that a large energy plan will be in the works for Obama in the upcoming days, as will the beginnings of healthcare reform. But, don't expect to see a huge ground shift when it comes to healthcare. "The Democrats learned their lesson with the Clintons," says Cook, referring to President Bill Clinton's failed 1993 healthcare plan that was prepared in secret within the White House, and dropped on Congress all at once. "Obama will want to roll things out in small increments."
On his Web site, Obama's healthcare plan offers six ways towards new, affordable health care. One of them is the expansion of SCHIP, or the State Children's Health Insurance Plan, which President George W. Bush vetoed in September of 2007 after it had passed the House (265-159) and the Senate (67-29). "SCHIP is a great example of incremental change," says Cook. "It's something that's already in the pipeline and should be easy to get out." If Obama chooses, he should have no problem passing SCHIP through Congress and signing it into law on his desk.
But what is the SCHIP Expansion, and will it help you?
What is SCHIP?
The original State Children's Health Insurance Plan, passed by a Republican led Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1997, provided $24 billion in federal matching funds to individual states from 1998-2007 to cover children whose families who were at or below 200% of the federal poverty line (FPL: $21,200 for a family of four in 2008) but not eligible for Medicaid, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The expansion of SCHIP, as passed by Congress, would have expanded the program by another $35 billion over five years to cover and additional four million children. Under the new plan, the eligibility limit to receive federally matching funds would be raised from 200% of the poverty level to 300-350% depending on the state. This expansion would have been funded by an increase in the federal tobacco tax by 61 cents per pack.
President Bush then vetoed the expansion because he believed the bill "moves our health care system in the wrong direction." After failing to secure a veto proof majority for the expansion, Congress voted to extend SCHIP at its current levels another 18 months so that it is good through 2009.
Why would President Obama start his administration with an expansion of SCHIP?
First, while Obama does not favor immediate federalization of the healthcare system, he does prefer a stronger government hand in the system with proposals like establishing a National Health Insurance Exchange that will offer a marketplace where individuals can search for both private and public insurance plan. And as Cook points out, "If the goal is universal health care in eight years, the question is how do you start slowly."
As Cook noted, the bill already passed through Congress in a bipartisan vote in 2007. The 265 votes in favor of SCHIP in the House of Representatives included 43 members of the GOP. Obama campaigned on a message of bipartisanship and in his acceptance speech in Chicago's Grant Park said, "Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long." Launching SCHIP as the forefront of a slowly rolled out healthcare plan could give Obama a political and policy victory at the same time.
But how will this affect me?
Each state has different laws for insuring children whose families hover near the poverty line, but an SCHIP expansion like the one vetoed by Bush, would raise the eligibility from a family of four making $42,400 to a family of four making almost $80,000 a year. That means that some children of lower middle class families would be eligible to enroll in the program.