President Obama, Health Care and the Rope Burning Contest

Premature post-mortems for health care reform blame President Obama for not weighing in early and forcefully with a specific plan of his own. This supposedly would have helped galvanize support and showed real leadership. The president allegedly "over-learned" the lessons of the Clinton insurance reform effort.

But what would have happened if the president had followed this advice? The haters would still have been out in force, but attacks on the president's priorities would have been even more pointed. He would surely have had to concede on some number of points. And what would then have followed? Answer: His supporters would be demoralized. Republicans would accuse him of weak leadership. He would have preserved less political flexibility to embrace different ideas coming out of Congress that met his core principles, but contradicted his specific proposals.

In short, the idea that the president would have been better off politically during our summer doldrums if he had originally staked out a more detailed bill is pure fantasy.

To keep my spirits up amid the nay-saying, I think about the president's situation against the backdrop of the one competitive event in my lifetime (other than Boggle) in which a team captain ever chose me first to participate. It was a summer camp "rope burning contest."

In rope burning, each team confronts a rope suspended about six feet off the ground by two poles. The winning team is the one who first succeeds in building a fire underneath their rope that actually burns through it.

Gary, the coolest kid in camp, was captain of my team for all the events that constituted the end-of-summer camp Olympics, including the rope burning. To my shock, he asked me to be his teammate for the two-man rope burning event. Why? He said: "The team that wins each year is the team that starts its fire last. I need someone smart enough to be patient."

Gary was right. When you see the other team piling its wood higher and higher, but you think your pile is for the moment higher still, it's hard not to rush to ignition. What he realized, however, is that, once you light your fire, the wood you have already stacked up begins to burn down. You have to feed twice as much wood to the pile to keep the fire moving upward. The team that wins is the team that waits for its woodpile to touch the rope before lighting a match.

I followed Gary's lead, however, and we lit our fire second. With seconds to spare and amid much bated breath, we won -- and our victory sealed the Olympics for our side.

I now think of the president's proposing a specific bill as lighting his fire, and I think the president is wise to wait until victory is immediately in sight. Just for good measure, I note that deferring to Congress on a lawmaking matter of this scope also honors the way the Constitution assigns legislative power.

In sum, the president is a smart and patient team captain. I'm still betting on his -- and the American people's -- victory.