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From behind closed doors, high-stakes victory

“Obama’s Deal’’ looks at the back-room maneuvering the president undertook before passage of the health care bill. “Obama’s Deal’’ looks at the back-room maneuvering the president undertook before passage of the health care bill. (Pete Souza)
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / April 13, 2010

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It’s hard to remember a piece of federal legislation since the civil rights bills of the ’60s that has rocked this country as has the leviathan health care bill that President Obama signed on March 23. It’s hard to remember anything since then to match the congressional bloodletting the bill caused, or its lasting national significance. Its passage saved Obama’s presidency and recalibrated the political calculus in Washington, which had been based on its assumed defeat.

If we are dim on all that’s in the bill, we were blind to the machinations behind the scenes that led to its rise and fall and rise again. To achieve victory, Obama had to cut unsavory deals. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. Anyone remotely interested in big-time, hardball legislative politics should watch “Obama’s Deal’’ tonight at 9 on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) to see how the president got his bill.

“Frontline’’ delivers the goods. It gives us the large themes and nasty fights that dominated Capitol Hill over the past year. We hear from a legion of smart insiders, journalists, and politicians, from every angle of the action. Veteran documentarian Mike Kirk, who wrote, directed, and coproduced this story, has done it again.

The deals really were ugly. One involved an $80 billion closed-door pact between Obama and the top pharmaceutical industry lobbyist, a pact to lower drug costs that critics charge was entirely too soft on the industry. Then came the $100 million deal to benefit Senator Ben Nelson’s home state of Nebraska to secure his vote.

The threads in this story are fascinating. One involves Obama and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, the ultimate realist and junkyard dog who wanted to push a smaller package at one point “to put some points on the board.’’ But Obama wanted the whole thing. Then came repeated White House attempts to produce bipartisan bills, which Republicans strangled in their cribs.

There was the early White House strategy to let Congress hammer out something that Obama could sign into law. Big mistake. We now know that Obama should have been much more involved earlier in the game. Down in the polls, he finally took personal control of the battle — no one else could match his campaign rhetoric — and took his show on the road for a month to sell health care reform to America. Once the White House acceded to demands for an executive order ensuring that no federal funding from the bill would be used to pay for abortions, the bill squeaked through.

The White House was first stunned and then wounded by a series of events that occurred early in the fight. First, former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, Obama’s designated trail boss to drive the legislation on the Hill as his nominee for Health and Human Services secretary, got into tax trouble and was gone fast. Later, the most powerful voice for universal health insurance in Congress, Senator Ted Kennedy, died of brain cancer. That left Montana Senator Max Baucus, a lesser politician, to try to build consensus in the Senate. Much later, Scott Brown’s election as a Republican senator from Massachusetts deprived the Democrats of their 60-vote supermajority, changing the game on the ground in Washington.

That Obama suffered political damage in winning this fight is indisputable. The only question is how much, and we won’t know the answer to that question until the elections are held in November.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

OBAMA’S DEAL

On: WGBH, Channel 2

Time: Tonight at 9