The Note: Lonely Summer — White House Seeks to Corral Liberal Angst

By Caitlin Taylor

Aug 19, 2009 8:22am

By RICK KLEIN Now, perhaps, the White House knows the limits of what it can push — and where it can expect to get pushed back. President Obama’s options have narrowed this week — but the public option has expanded in significance. The debate has dug in the left, turned off the right, and squeezed the president. Yet all the organizing and traveling and talking and shouting has left the president’s plans about where they were back when Brett Favre was retired for only the second time. For all the noise, the polls aren’t budging. (Maybe Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is right: “Absolutely nothing has changed.”)   What’s still clear: The House bill will include a public option. The Senate’s in a different place. If things can keep moving (the real White House goal for months now) it gets worked out (or not) in conference committee. With that — a strategy emerges to corral some of the liberal energy that’s made itself so evident this week. Making it so (and driving the narrative even if it isn’t so): “Given hardening Republican opposition to Congressional health care proposals, Democrats now say they see little chance of the minority’s cooperation in approving any overhaul, and are increasingly focused on drawing support for a final plan from within their own ranks,” Carl Hulse and Jeff Zeleny report in The New York Times. “Administration officials . . . are becoming increasingly convinced that they will instead have to navigate the complicated politics among varying Democratic factions.”  How many levels is Rahm Emanuel playing on? “The Republican leadership,” said the White House chief of staff, “has made a strategic decision that defeating President Obama’s health care proposal is more important for their political goals than solving the health insurance problems that Americans face every day.” (This is what it was? “This week’s careful administration maneuvering on whether a public insurance option was an essential element of any final bill was seemingly part of the new White House effort to find consensus among Democrats, since the public plan has been resisted by moderate and conservative Democrats who could be crucial to winning the votes for passage if no Republicans are on board.”) The White House never thought it would get more than a small handful of Republican votes anyway. But this is damage control as political strategy — a signal liberals have been waiting for, and a way to unite the Democrats who do, after all, control the levers of power. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, on “Good Morning America” Wednesday: “White House officials recognize that the president’s original strategy has failed, and they have to start fresh. . . . They’re going to have to find a way to do this almost solely with Democratic votes.” New messaging, per Stephanopoulos: “Blame the Republicans if health care doesn’t go through, and make them the enemy here.” Most intriguingly: “White House officials have talked privately about whether to use the Clintons more on health care.”  One upshot of going it alone: “For liberals supporting far-reaching changes to the nation’s health care system, it was another sign that months of negotiations have been a one-way street. It’s time to move on without Republicans, they say,” the AP’s Charles Babington and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar report.  Sound like a threat? “You’ve got the votes — pull the trigger!” RNC Chairman Michael Steele tells ABC’s Steven Portnoy. The White House is confident that action will come in September, per ABC’s Jake Tapper: “The momentum, they say, will be with doing something over nothing,” Tapper reported on “GMA.” A method to the ambiguity? “The best way NOT to get those 60 votes is to declare right now that you won’t settle for anything less than a full-scale public plan,” Jill Lawrence writes for Politics Daily. “The second best way not to get them is to make clear you’ll insist on a public option later, when the Senate is in negotiations with the House to mesh their bills. Thus the best strategy right now is to stay flexible – or at least appear that way. Whether by accident or design, Obama and his team have achieved this.”  Or not so much: “[HHS Secretary Kathleen] Sebelius waffled enough to rile up liberal Democrats, puzzle ‘Blue Dog’ conservative Democrats and hand the GOP a raft of new reasons to dig in against the sweeping change Obama promised,” Richard Sisk writes in the New York Daily News.   Look who else is thinking about the conference committee (and who else finds “facts” to be “stubborn things”: “The co-op approach has potential and should be considered, but it must not get hijacked in the House-Senate conference as a backdoor way to get a government-run program in place. A government-run option is really no option at all,” Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the ranking Republican on the HELP committee, writes in a USA Today op-ed.  Yet: “At a time when the president had hoped to be selling middle-class voters on how insurance reforms would benefit them, the White House instead finds itself mired in a Democratic Party feud over an issue it never intended to spotlight,” Michael D. Shear and Ceci Connolly report for The Washington Post.  “We’re forgetting why we are in this,” says a senior White House adviser. The president is back on the subject Wednesday, with calls set with religious groups on health care.   At 4:30 pm ET, the president honors Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson and a range of other racing notables at the White House. (Remember NASCAR dads?)  And the president tries out a few new communications techniques Thursday. Obama will appear on conservative talk show host’s Michael Smerconish’s program live from the White House to take questions on health care Thursday morning. (Smercomish endorsed Obama shortly before the election.)  And Thursday afternoon, Organizing for America is setting up a video and phone conference on health care with the president.  The new new pitch: “President Barack Obama, trying to regain control of the health-care debate, will likely shift his pitch in September, White House and Democratic officials said, as he faces pressure from supporters to talk more about the moral imperative to provide health insurance to all Americans,” Jonathan Weisman reports in The Wall Street Journal. “The president is expected to present a more emotional appeal during a conference call Wednesday with liberal religious groups. A senior White House official said the message would be tailored to the groups’ moral emphases, although he cautioned the president’s message to religious groups may not herald a broader shift in themes.”  Pleading for that new pitch to sound different: “If Mr. Obama wants to jettison the now-weakened public plan to dampen overheated opposition, he should say what he will insist on instead,” The New York Times editorializes.  Why there are pieces to pick up: “When you’re Barack Obama and you’ve lost Jon Stewart, you’ve got a problem,” Politico’s Mike Allen reports. “White House officials, by acknowledging that a public option (or government plan) is not essential to achieving health care reform, may have improved their chances of ultimately getting a bill. In the meantime, though, they have touched off the most ferocious backlash among liberal talking heads since President Obama took office.” 
“Where have you gone, Barack Obama? Where is the sunny-side-up young man who promised to inspire and unite an unhappy nation?” Michael Goodwin writes in his New York Daily News column. “Gone into the partisan sinkhole of Washington, that’s where. Like some novice swimmer too confident of his own ability, Obama is suddenly finding himself in water over his head.”  Any shot at bipartisanship? “Asked by ABC News about a package of insurance market reforms that have been endorsed not only by President Obama but also by the insurance industry, Sen. Jon Kyl came out against all three proposals,” per ABC’s Teddy Davis.  Maybe late for this: “Enough already with the public option! It is not the be-all and end-all of health-care reform,” Steven Perlstein writes in his Washington Post column. “The public option has become for the left what ‘death panels’ have become for the right — an easily understood metaphor that can be used to wage an ideological war over the issue of Big Government, and mostly a sideshow.”  Next steps with North Korea: President Obama was debriefed by former President Bill Clinton about his trip. “The two men huddled for more than 40 minutes in the Situation Room, a secure venue where the former president could provide a full briefing on his furtive trip to the isolated nation and share his insights on the discussions he held with the country’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il. They then continued the conversation for 30 more minutes in the Oval Office,” Christina Bellantoni and Matthew Mosk report in the Washington Times.  On Wednesday, two North Korean diplomats will meet with Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., in Santa Fe.  “The White House approved the visit, which the official said did not signal any movement toward the resumption of official talks with North Korea and the United States. But the meeting, which he said the North Koreans requested, comes on the heels of conciliatory gestures toward South Korea, and suggests a concerted effort on the part of the North,” Mark Landler and Mark Mazzetti write in The New York Times. Steve Terrell, in the Santa Fe New Mexican: “History seems to be repeating itself. Just a few days into his administration back in January 2003 two North Koreans came to Santa Fe to meet with the governor.”  Battles to come…. Asks ABC’s Jake Tapper: “Will Bagram Be President Obama’s Guantanamo?” “The White House declined to comment Tuesday about a letter sent by the American Civil Liberties Union asking why President Obama is refusing to make public information about the detainees imprisoned at the US military’s Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan,” Tapper writes.  The agenda is set to get crowded: “President Barack Obama plans an all-out push for health care reform legislation after Labor Day — but he is likely to find Congress and the media distracted by a series of thorny national security problems, including Guantanamo and Iran, which are set to come roaring back onto the national agenda,” Politico’s Josh Gerstein reports.  Carly Fiorina is in, in California: “Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina announced today that she has taken another step toward launching a U.S. Senate bid,” per the Sacramento Bee.  Chris Kennedy is out, in Illinois: “Merchandise Mart mogul and political heir Chris Kennedy is telling supporters today he isn’t running for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Roland Burris,” the Chicago Tribune’s Rick Pearson reports.  Remembering Robert Novak, 1931-2009: “Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak, one of the nation’s most influential journalists, who relished his ‘Prince of Darkness’ public persona, died at home here early Tuesday after a battle with brain cancer,” Lynn Sweet writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Novak’s remarkable and long-running career made him a powerful presence in newspaper columns, newsletters, books and on television. His was a conservative voice — but he was hardly a foot soldier of the Republican Party, having been, for instance, a major critic of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq.”  “Bob Novak wrote columns because it was the only vocation he ever had. Though he never would have called his work ‘public service’ — he laughed at the idea — he undoubtedly served his country by exposing the machinations of power and showing how government actually operated,” Timothy P. Carney writes for the Washington Examiner. “The Prince of Darkness, in addition to being a gossip and dirt-disher inside the Beltway, also shined a light in the corners where power was exercised.” 
The Kicker: “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” — Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., responding to a constituent at a town-hall meeting who asked him why he was “supporting this Nazi policy” on health care.  “I wasn’t around in the 1800s and the 1700s, but I’m a student of history and politics, and I know what those political squabbles, if you will, were like – a lot more violent, if you will. People were dueling and all kinds of other things going on in those days.” — RNC Chairman Michael Steele. 
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