By RICK KLEIN OK, so it’s not about him — except that really, it is. That’s not a bad thing for a president with a 65 percent approval rating (though it’s more difficult when he’s at 60, or 57, or whatever comes next). But it’s a fact: Health care reform is President Obama’s top priority. It wouldn’t be Washington’s top priority without him in the White House. It won’t be Congress’ top priority much longer unless the president finds a way to answer calls for more engagement. (And, for a day at least, it’s not the media’s top priority — not with the first African-American president calling police “stupid” in a racially charged case involving his friend.) The president is going broad — again tying health care reform to the economy, and explaining what’s in it all for your average American. That’s the theme again Thursday as he takes it outside of Washington — to Cleveland. But have we moved beyond the point where it makes sense to have the president make a broad case to an anxious public? We’re deep in the legislative weeds, each day lost bringing Congress that much closer to missing a deadline that just isn’t realistic anymore. Until or unless the debate over racial profiling spills into health care reform, the president is going to have to find new ways to raise the stakes, after a news conference where those in Congress were looking for new direction found the debate basically where it was before. The president “is focusing now on a broader and more distant audience: the American people, whose qualms about his plan seem to be growing,” the AP’s Chuck Babington writes. “In his comments Wednesday and at scheduled events Thursday in Cleveland, the president is speaking directly to families about their pocketbook and medical concerns, urging them to ignore political opportunists and naysayers in order to achieve sweeping changes, which previous administrations could not attain.” He’s right about the inertia thing: “Inertia is what some members of his own party might accuse the President himself of. And if they had any hope that Obama would get more specific in what he wants to see in a final health-care bill, they had to be sorely disappointed,” Time’s Karen Tumulty reports. “He made a strong case against the status quo,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos said on “Good Morning America” Thursday. “I think he was a little bit less successful in selling what he wants to do, in part because he doesn’t have a single plan to sell right now. . . . He’s going to have to do this all over again” in September, when the Hill legislation is likely to take firmer shape. Hello, Cleveland: The president tours the Cleveland Clinic at 1:15 pm ET, then it’s a 2:10 pm ET town-hall forum at Shaker Heights High School. Then it’s a quick stop at Penny Pritzker’s house in Chicago for a fundraiser before he’s back to DC. “Dr. Obama’s Traveling Medicine Show is in town,” Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Kevin O’Brien writes. “Step right up, folks. Press in close around the wagon and hear the good doctor pronounce with preternatural poise on the prodigiously potent properties of his potion, a panacea so powerful that he predicts — nay, promises! — that it will prevail even over the laws of economics. But only if you believe.” Talk of “supplementals” and “uncompensated care,” even a casual mention of “photo sprays” — is there a better way to get the public to bombard their congressional representatives with phone calls? (And who’s talking Washington talk now?) The president “did not use the appearance at the White House to make any fresh demands on Congress, which is struggling to meet his timetable for both chambers to pass legislation before members break for August recess. Mr. Obama did not repeat that demand Wednesday night,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times. “Instead, he sounded cerebral as he delved into policy specifics for nearly an hour and tried to link them to the concerns of ordinary Americans.” From the Hill, they’re practically begging: “The president needs to step in more forcefully and start making some decisions,” a “senior Democratic aide” tells the Times. “He never detailed his own plan, or named a single victim of America’s broken system, and he spoke largely in the abstractions of blue pills, red pills, and legislative processes. It’s not easy to turn delivery system reform into a rallying cry for change, but at times, it was as if Obama wasn’t even trying,” Politico’s Ben Smith writes. “Instead of shaking the rafters, he spent most of his hour just checking rhetorical boxes, with language so poll-tested and focus-grouped, it was bleached of life.”
“He’s not revealing his hand and that may be good beltway politics and it may work in poker but it also may leave Americans a tad confused and a little frustrated,” the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody writes. Key point on why urgency may not work as an argument: “The extraordinary federal actions pushed during the early months of Obama’s presidency may have averted crisis, but the benefits have yet to show up in the lives of many Americans,” Michael Fletcher reports in The Washington Post. “Even fellow Democrats now say that the deadline Obama set for the House and Senate to pass a bill before their August recess is unrealistic,” Peter Nicholas, Christi Parsons and Noam N. Levey write in the Los Angeles Times. “And mounting opposition from powerful interest groups has been equally worrisome for the White House. On Wednesday, the American Hospital Assn. urged its members to lobby against an administration proposal for an independent agency that would set Medicare payment rates.” The president “hedged his bet on the deadline by noting that if the bill Congress produces is not a good one by his standard, then he will not sign it,” ABC’s Karen Travers, Jake Tapper, and Huma Khan report. “But Obama continued to push both the House and Senate to pass health care reform bills before they break for their August recess and urge lawmakers, especially Republicans, to move beyond the ‘game of politics.’ “ “At a critical moment in his presidency, Mr. Obama is hoping to regain momentum on his domestic agenda by seizing control of the health-care debate,” The Wall Street Journal’s Laura Meckler, Greg Hitt and Jonathan Weisman report. “How effectively the president delivered the message in his late-Wednesday news conference — and the impact on public opinion and a skittish Congress — will have major implications for the rest of his year, and perhaps for his full term.” “Obama wanted to speak to America like adults tonight–and make the case for the reforms he (quite rightly) believes are necessary. Time will tell whether that faith in the public’s patience and judgment is well-placed,” per The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn. An undeniable truth: “If you don’t set deadlines in this town, things don’t happen,” the president said. (And yet, that deadline is slipping.) Confidence: “I have no question that we have the votes on the floor of the House to pass this legislation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday. Realities: “No, I don’t think they have the votes,” said Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., per ABC’s Jake Tapper and Z. Byron Wolf. “We’re speaking for a silent majority within the Democratic caucus.” “I don’t know who’s doing her vote counting, but she doesn’t have the votes,” said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., per The Hill’s Mike Soraghan and Jared Allen. Of deadlines: “Speaker Pelosi is trying to keep the pressure on,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reports. “She insists the votes are there to pass health care in the House. But that’s questionable. And her caucus won’t want to vote unless the Senate Finance Committee, at minimum, reaches a deal early next week. Even then, the Speaker will be under tremendous pressure to put the vote off until September too.” Why deadlines matter: “Democratic leaders, including the president, are now backing away from a vote on health care before August,” writes Karl Rove, in his Wall Street Journal column. “But that’s not likely to decrease voter angst. Americans for Prosperity and others are already organizing voters to attend public meetings with members of Congress this summer. My guess is that members of Congress are about to hear a lot from their voters on the government takeover of health care, new energy taxes, the failed stimulus, record deficits, and growing joblessness.” Ad wars, from the other side: Health Care for America Now and AFSCME is launching a TV ad campaign Thursday targeting a Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., seven GOP members of Congress. An officials tells The Note that the ad, “Fighter,” will be up for five days in the districts of Republicans Dave Camp (MI-04), Pat Tiberi (OH-12), Mark E. Souder (IN-03), Dave G. Reichert (WA-08), Eric Cantor (VA-07), Bill Cassidy (LA-06), and John B. Shadegg (AZ-03) And the DNC is up on TV in South Carolina — targeting Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., over the “Waterloo” comment. Was she on to something? “Watching Barack Obama trying to push members of Congress toward some kind of agreement on a health care bill gives you a new appreciation for why Hillary Clinton decided to just write the whole thing herself and dump it on them,” Gail Collins writes in The New York Times. Or maybe Team Obama is still on to something larger: “Let’s start at the end. Despite all the dire words being spoken, some version of health reform will pass simply because failure is not an option for Democrats who care about staying in power (which happens to be all of them),” E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his column. Finance Committee negotiations lost Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah (would he have abandoned his friend Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., at this stage?) — and they might lose much more: “Senate Democrats are increasingly frustrated by the secrecy and duration of Finance Chairman Max Baucus’ (D-Mont.) bipartisan talks on health care reform, with some saying it could undermine Democratic support for the bill,” Roll Call’s Emily Pierce and David M. Drucker report. “Democrats both on and off the Finance Committee said the briefings they get about the six negotiators’ progress are too vague. Plus, they say, without a bill in hand, they cannot defend or sell the package to a wary media and public. The president was well-immersed in the story involving Henry Louis Gates Jr. — in the most in-depth comments he’s made on a hot-button racial issue as president. “I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately,” the president said. “That’s just a fact.” The Boston Globe’s Joe Williams: “Cambridge Sergeant James Crowley, who arrested Gates last Thursday, declined to respond to the president. Asked at a softball game in Natick last night about Obama’s remarks, Crowley shook his head and said, ‘I think I’d be better off not commenting on that one.’ “ Crowley is the same officer who tried to save Reggie Lewis’ life, in 1993. And he’s not apologizing: “I am not a racist,” he told the Globe. Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons, to ABC’s Chris Cuomo on “GMA”: “I’m not going to make a judgment on what the president says and when he says it.” The rarest of Capitol Hill sightings: An NRA defeat. “The NRA’s impressive winning streak has ended,” ABC’s Jonathan Karl reports. “Twenty Democrats voted ‘yes,’ including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), but the measure fell just two votes short of the 60 needed to pass.” “How do you outgun the NRA? Very, very carefully,” The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank reports. “The slim margin was no accident: Other Democrats, such as Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey and Colorado’s Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, were said to have been willing to vote ‘no’ if necessary.” Padding Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s margin: “I choose to vote for Judge Sotomayor because she is well qualified. We are talking about one of the most qualified Supreme Court nominees in decades,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., per ABC’s Jonathan Karl. “Her record of academic achievement is extraordinary.” Annals of transparency: “Faced with a lawsuit from a government watchdog group, the Obama Administration tonight released a list of visits health care industry executives made to the White House since January,” per ABC’s Jake Tapper and Karen Travers. Wall Street titans may not love him, but their rich friends in other countries do: “President Barack Obama has rock-star appeal among the investing class — except in his own country,” Bloomberg’s Heidi Przybyla writes. “The Quarterly Bloomberg Global Poll of financial investors and analysts finds attitudes about the new president in Asia and Europe are overwhelmingly positive. In the U.S., by contrast, they are slightly negative. In Europe and Asia, 87 percent of respondents say they view Obama positively, compared with just 49 percent in the U.S.” New Q poll — Dodd’s in real trouble: “Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd trails former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, a likely Republican challenger 48 – 39 percent in the 2010 Senate race, but he is inching up in his job approval to a negative 42 – 52 percent approval rating, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today.” Coming today, from the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association: “Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter and Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray will hold a telephone press conference . . . Thursday, July 23rd, at 10am Eastern, to announce the launch of a broadened scope and mission for the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association (DLGA). The announcement kicks off the DLGA’s commitment to become a leader in the development of the next generation of Democratic leaders.”
The Kicker: ”Of course, the setting of the conversation and the nature of the participants do not affect CBO’s analysis of health reform legislation.” — Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf, writing on his blog about an Oval Office meeting with President Obama. “Obviously, the critics will criticize.” — Gov. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., headed for a two-week European vacation (with his wife and four sons).
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