Ashley Cruseturner: Healthcare May Be “Manifest Destiny” for this President and Congress





[Ashley Cruseturner teaches American history at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas.]

After thirteen months on the job, President Obama’s renewed call to “move forward in a bipartisan fashion” faces an increasingly skeptical and entrenched opposition. As he prepares to convene a highly publicized peace conference concerning the health care impasse, Republican leaders openly suspect the meeting is merely a diversion to rally public opinion on his behalf.

Perhaps the President is summoning his inner James K. Polk. The Tenth President, another determined chief executive with an extraordinarily ambitious agenda, earned an enduring reputation as a crafty political operator and, perhaps more notably, left his mark on the presidency through his remarkable capacity for accomplishment.

President Polk spent his first two years in office assiduously attempting to fulfill his expansionist campaign promises of 1844. After splitting the difference with Great Britain on Oregon, Polk turned to the Southwest. Intent on separating Mexico from two coveted territories, New Mexico and California, the President feigned conciliation while actually maneuvering toward armed conflict. Polk dispatched an envoy, John Slidell, to negotiate a settlement with Mexican diplomats, but cleverly structured the undertaking in a way that virtually precluded any chance of success.


Following the anticipated collapse of the Slidell mission, the President prepared a message for Congress asking for a declaration of war against Mexico for refusing to negotiate. Before he could deliver the formal request, however, the President received welcome news. In addition to the diplomatic slight, a Mexican cavalry detachment had engaged an American unit of dragoons along the Rio Grande—placed there, of course, by Polk to provoke just such a reaction.

Polk quickly rewrote his message, reporting to Congress that “war exists, and, notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself.” We had pursued every effort to arrive at a peaceful settlement, Polk lamented to his national audience, but “our cup of forbearance had been exhausted.”...

Back to the Future. Even as the parties prepare, ostensibly, to negotiate healthcare in good faith at the Blair House, Republicans suspect President Obama of orchestrating an alternative plan to achieve his goal by more violent means. Republicans breathlessly warn the President and his party that a healthcare victory gained through the unusual legislative remedy of “reconciliation” will cost them dearly....

If President Obama chooses to walk the path of James K. Polk, how might things turn out?...

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