Master politician that he is, Barack Obama is a lousy calculator. He spectacularly misjudged the American public's appetite for a government nanny. Or maybe he miscalculated the power of his slippery tongue to sell government snake oil.
His apparent willingness to abandon the attempt - for now - to nationalize the health-care industry appears to defer the Democratic first step in remaking the home of the brave and the land of the free into Little America, cutting it down to a size incapable of intimidating the likes of Switzerland or Swaziland.
But only if the opposition keeps up unremitting pressure. The president signals a change in tactics, not objectives. His concession that the so-called "government option" is temporarily dead does not mean the dream of "postalizing" health care, of making it as responsive as the Post Office, is dead. It's merely that the tenderizing pain in certain Democratic keesters is so acute that somebody had to find a way to get a little relief. Running up a fake white flag might do it; when the opposition puts down its guns the postalizers will fire at will.
The president never actually said he would defer to public sentiment. The special gift of snake-oil salesmen is their ability to say one thing and make audiences hear something else. "All I'm saying is, though, that the public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of health care reform," he told an audience on Sunday in Colorado. "This is just one sliver of it."
The leftmost fringe of his party is having none of this apparent concession to reasonableness and moderation. House Democrats recall their ecstasy of waking up on the morning after the 2008 elections, imagining that with their 78-seat margin it's now or never, and they can't wait to get started on the plastic surgery to alter the face of America the Beautiful. They've been sharpening scalpels and carving knives since.
This puts the House leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her liege man, Steny Hoyer, in a particular bind. They owe their 78-seat margin to men and women moderate enough to win in conservative districts; many of these freshmen know they will never be sophomores if they vote for a health care plan that dooms the private insurance coverage that works well enough for the middle class.
One of them, Rep. Eric Massa of New York, is a confirmed nanny-state Democrat who understands what a vote for Obamacare is likely to cost him. "I will vote adamantly against the interests of my district if I actually think what I am doing is going to be helpful. I will vote against their opinion if I actually believe it will help them."
The early Democratic strategy of trying to shout down the opposition, painting critics as Nazis waving swastikas (Nancy Pelosi), as "evil-mongers" (Senate Leader Harry Reid), as "un-American" (Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas), as over-dressed snobs and bounders (Sen. Barbara Boxer of California), clearly failed.
So has the attempt to portray critics as ignorant yahoos too thick to understand how well government health schemes have worked in places like Canada and Great Britain. The more we learn about the Canadian and British schemes the less they look like models for anyone.
The new president of the Canadian Medical Association says Canadian doctors must recognize how sick the Canadian system is and figure out how to fix it. "We all agree that the system is imploding," says Dr. Anne Doig, "and we all agree that things are more precarious than Canadians perhaps realize."
Stephen Glover, a columnist for the London Daily Mail, defends Britain's National Health Service but concedes that Americans wouldn't like it.
"Consult any American who has encountered the National Health Service," he writes. "Often [visiting Americans] cannot believe … the squalor, the looming threat, the long waiting lists and especially the target that patients in 'accident and emergency' should be expected to wait for no more than four - four! - hours, the sense exuded by some medical staff that they are doing you a favor by taking down your personal details. Most Americans, let's face it, are used to much higher standards of health care than we enjoy."
Americans aren't as dumb as the politicians often think they are, and nothing educates politicians like a well-aimed two-by-four square across the noggin. That's the hard lesson of the summer of '09.