Reforming 16 percent of the economy in a single stroke is not only an enormous task in itself, its complexities are so overwhelming the average American is left vulnerable to misunderstandings that cause deep personal concerns, some imaginary, some real. With those fears in hand, as we all know now, they went to the polls in Massachusetts and reacted in a way that may have killed the 2,700-page monstrosity.
From the very beginning, veteran observers warned that an agenda that included such a gigantic undertaking with its all consuming legislative ramifications had a low level of expected success, particularly in the first year of a presidency that also faced so many other problems here and abroad.
Allies and critics alike urged a slowing of the process, a little smaller bite of the problem. The cornerstone of the original plan, a public insurance option that was the first step toward universal health care, was abandoned in a compromise to save the initiative, alienating liberals.
Now the president vows to keep the health care fight alive.
To meet the demands of 10 months of political uncertainty until the midterm elections, he has assembled the old campaign team that improbably took him from a freshman senator to the White House in 2008. But if current trends hold, Republicans could make sizable inroads in Congress with as many as six Senate seats changing hands.
Considering that the party in the White House historically loses congressional seats at this halfway point under normal circumstances, it won't be easy for Obama. The last few state elections, including the one in Massachusetts, have clearly shown a Republican resurgence fueled by high unemployment, worries about a possible double dip recession, continuing casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, a housing market still not healed and last but not least the potential costs of it all combined with a soaring national debt.
Did the president spend too much time and energy trying to sell health care reform at the expense of other problems? Probably. His strategy also was too influenced by the 1994 debacle when Bill Clinton's health care proposal developed by a task force headed by Hillary Clinton met an early demise in Congress. Obama this time left it up to Capitol Hill to produce the details of the package, an always-iffy approach, while he lobbied the public. It was as warned, a flawed strategy.
The pundits most like to compare Obama to Franklin Roosevelt, whose first 100 days in office were filled with radical legislative achievement aimed at relieving the pressures and anxieties of a depression that already had been underway for three years and was growing more difficult daily. But the current recession, while the worst of its kind since then, still is not nearly as debilitating.
Unlike Obama, Roosevelt took few chances with Congress. His young advisors were a "brain trust" that wrote the New Deal proposals and shoved them through the legislature with little alteration from free-lance lawmakers.
There is considerable evidence that voters are becoming increasingly concerned by the mounting costs of health care and other initiatives.
There is a discernible lack of faith in financial projections for all of the president's plans - that what the average American will have to shell out to offset the costs are being low-balled for political reasons. The current costs in the health bill over 10 years are estimated at between $870 billion in the Senate bill and $1.3 trillion in the House version. Experts believe the cost of either version could exceed $2 trillion. Polls also reveal a building resentment by Americans over provisions that force them to buy insurance or face penalties.
The president says he got the Massachusetts' message.
One wonders why he wasn't listening sooner.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.