The mark of the great football coaches is their ability to go into the locker room down a couple of touchdowns at halftime, figure out what’s going wrong, and devise a strategy to make up the difference and win.

Barack Obama’s been there before. He was there after the New Hampshire primary. The post-Iowa euphoria was replaced by the post-New Hampshire hysteria. Sure, Obama had taken Hillary by surprise in the hothouse environment of the Iowa caucuses, but Hillary had come back with actual voters in New Hampshire. Obama had to get tough, brush the Clintons back with chin-high inside heat, the only language they would understand.

He was back in the South Carolina primary. The Clintons were playing hardball, trying to peel white voters away from Obama by implying that he was “the black candidate,” like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton before him, in the race not to win but to raise racial issues. That slander needed to be slapped down and slapped down hard. Obama needed to show toughness, or he’d be rolled.

Again, after the Republican convention, after the nomination of Sarah Palin had catapulted the Republican ticket into an early-September lead. McCain may have made a mockery of his side’s claim to superior experience, but he had gone outside the box in picking a fresh-faced vice presidential candidate who would mix it up with the opposition, compared with Obama’s choice of a well-worn fixture of the Washington establishment. Within two weeks of the Palin selection, Obama had lost his lead and was four points down to McCain in the polls.

There are three ways of understanding what happened. One is that Obama was following a rope-a-dope strategy (if I can switch sporting metaphors) all along, letting his opponents wear themselves out and make mistakes, keeping his branded cool while letting the public see his opponents as sweaty, angry and desperate. Another is that he wasn’t a brilliant strategist but a great tactician. He didn’t foresee the great leap forward in Iowa or the surge in the caucuses, didn’t foresee Hillary’s comeback or the backfiring of the Palin strategy, but he was smart enough to take advantage of events and his opponents’ mistakes and that turned out to be enough. And a third is that Obama took the field by surprise and built an early lead, then hung on by dodging and slipping his rival’s punches until time ran out.

The politics of healthcare were excruciatingly hard from the beginning. The number of people without health insurance, forty-some-odd million, is disgracefully high for a country as rich as ours—but it’s just fifteen percent of the population; the overwhelming majority have something. Try to remake the whole system, and you win the support of the fifteen percent and the right-thinkers, the think-tankers and the viewers of The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, who see the current system as over-complicated, wasteful and unfair.

But try and fix just the most broken part of the system, the part that leaves more than forty million people without coverage, and you turn health care reform into a program for the underprivileged, and you know how much support those programs support.*

And that was before Republicans saw that they could use public apprehension over health care as a club with which they might kneecap Obama, maybe even beat him down. And it was before August, before the town hall shout-downs and death-panel calumnies.

Now (back to football, because it is, after all, football season) Obama’s coming out of halftime again, this time in the healthcare debate. Has he been rope-a-doping, letting opponents discredit themselves with the public, which can then turn back to the only one talking sense to the American people? Did he not see this kind of opposition coming, but did see, during the halftime break, the way to success? Or will he take what he seems to have—phased-in universal coverage, subsidy for those who can’t afford insurance, and maybe a watered-down, triggered public option?

In the campaign, Obama recognized that it was more important to win the game than to win the possession or the quarter, and more important to win the season than to win the game.

So too in setting social policy.

The Social Security we know today, for example, was not what passed Congress in 1935. As originally passed by Congress and signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Social Security covered only half the working population. Half of all women and two-thirds of all African Americans were ineligible because they worked in jobs that weren’t covered: agricultural workers, domestic employees, government employees, and many teachers, nurses, hospital employees, librarians, and social workers. Even those who were covered received no benefits until five years after the law passed, and the first monthly benefits were only $22.54. Roosevelt himself, at the Social Security signing ceremony, described the new law as the “cornerstone in a structure which is being built but which is by no means complete.”

Not until 1939 was Aid to Dependent Children made a part of Social Security. Not until the 1950s was eligibility extended to domestic and agricultural workers; people who worked in laundries and hotels; state and local government employees; and the self-employed—i.e. to blacks and women. Medicare wasn’t added until 1965. Benefits weren’t indexed to the cost of living until 1972.

So whatever emerges from this debate, we should maintain the patience shown by Chinese premier Zhou Enlai who, when asked his opinion of the French Revolution, replied, “Too soon to tell.”

It is easy to understand the frustration, even the feelings of betrayal, of those who first saw single-payer health insurance excluded from consideration and now see the possibility that even the tokenistic “public option” may prove a bridge too far for a liberal Democratic president and congressional leadership to cross. It is hard to see good legislation distorted and good elected officials calumniated without replying in kind.

But teams win when they play the kind of game they’re good at, not the game the other team’s good at. You don’t always win by playing your game. But you almost never win playing the other team’s game.

Patience in the face of reverses is no guarantee of eventual success. Not every trailing candidate or cause catches up and wins. But this year’s fight for health care reform is just coming out of halftime. And this year’s fight, however it turns out, is by no means the end of the season.

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