By RICK KLEIN It’s just a matter of bipartisanship, while staying true to the base. It’s about 60 votes, except when it’s about 50. The public option is a must — or it must be gone. In which case it’s better to have nothing at all — or to take whatever he can get. The perfect may or may not be the enemy of the good, but a vacuum is a natural enemy of Washington. And that’s where we see President Obama right now — cramped by the latest new polls, August having been at best a wash, stuck in a health care rut. Cue David Axelrod, who uses a round of interviews to vow a new White House tack: It’s time, he says, for specifics — sort of, and soon-ish. “Faced with falling approval ratings and increasingly impatient with Senate negotiations, Obama is considering a speech in the next week or so in which he would be ‘more prescriptive’ about what he feels Congress must include in a health bill, top adviser David Axelrod said Tuesday in an interview,” the AP’s Chuck Babington writes. “The speech might occur before the Sept. 15 deadline the White House gave Senate negotiators to seek a bipartisan bill.” Team Obama has always been a bit better about telegraphing the strategic shifts than in following through — or in following a new course once it’s publicly selected. (How many interviews did Axelrod or Obama himself give in 2008 to send the message that the campaign was about to get tougher? And what happened to attacking insurance companies, or making the moral case for health reform, or focusing on consumer protections?) Welcome to the fall concert series: “We’re entering a new season,” Axelrod told Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei. “It’s time to synthesize and harmonize these strands and get this done. We’re confident that we can do that. But obviously it is a different phase. We’re going to approach it in a different way. The president is going to be very active.” What won’t be on his list of demands — cue the left: (This from an “aide” — and what are the chances it’s an aide who’s at odds with Axelrod?) “We have been saying all along that the most important part of this debate is not the public option, but rather ensuring choice and competition. . . . There are lots of different ways to get there.” What will be, per The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder: “He plans to list specific goals that any health insurance reform plan that arrives at his desk must achieve, according to Democratic strategists familiar with the plan. Some of these ‘goals’ have already been agreed to, including new anti-discrimination restrictions on insurance companies. Others will be new, including the level of subsidies he expects to give the uninsured so they can buy into the system. Obama will also specify a ‘pay for’ mechanism he prefers, and will specify an income level below which he does not want to see taxed.” Remembering the Mainers: “Democrats hope to persuade the public that Republicans are to blame for the stalemate and shift opinion in favor of an overhaul. They want to build enough momentum to win support from a small number of moderate Republicans, in particular the two senators from Maine,” Jonathan Weisman reports in The Wall Street Journal. Axelrod: “If you want to move the ball forward…being much more prescriptive is one of the things on the table.” “An Oval Office address, the first of Obama’s presidency, or a speech to a joint session of Congress are also being considered,” Bloomberg’s Julianna Goldman reports. Stirring up the Obama army, again: “Over the past few months, two things have become clear about the fight for health insurance reform,” Organizing for America director Mitch Stewart writes in an e-mail to supporters, per ABC’s Jake Tapper. “1. Our opponents will create and spread outrageous lies to try to stop President Obama from creating real change. 2. We just can’t count on the media to debunk them.” Among the problems with a new strategy: It’s not like the president hasn’t been talking about health care already, and extensively. “Since taking office, President Obama's approval ratings have fallen more steeply than any other newly elected president in modern history,” Tapper reported Wednesday on “Good Morning America.” “Currently at 50 percent job approval in the Gallup daily tracking poll, if President Obama dips any lower before November, his would be the second-fastest drop below majority approval of any elected president since World War II — behind only Bill Clinton.” Slate’s John Dickerson: “Maybe the president's problem is not that he didn't link health care reform to personal security but that he did make the case and he's just not getting through.” Robert Reich, at Salon: “Obama and progressive supporters of health care were outmaneuvered in August — not because the right had any better idea for solving the health care mess but because the rights' attack on the Democrats' idea was far more disciplined than was the Democrats' ability to sell it.” Dan Balz, in The Washington Post: “At a time when the president needs unity among his supporters, they are divided. How high a price will Obama have to pay to try to reunify the Democrats, and will he follow them or will they follow him?” “The concern for Obama as Congress prepares to return is that lawmakers who are already looking ahead toward the 2010 midterm elections may be less willing to follow the president than they were six or eight months ago, when he was seen as the transformational winner of a historic election riding a mandate for change,” Balz continues. The new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll has 53 percent of independents disapproving of the president’s job performance. Plus: “the president still gets majority support on foreign affairs and terrorism, but a majority now disapprove of how he has handled health care, taxes, the economy and the budget deficit.” And: “The McClatchy/Ipsos poll found continuing opposition to Democratic health care proposals — 45 percent opposed and 40 percent supporting — and served as another reminder to Obama that he needs to find a way to reframe the debate if he's to win public and congressional support for a health care overhaul,” McClatchy’s Steven Thomma reports. Hopeful sign, in the optimism? “Even after the tough town-hall-style meetings, unrelenting Republican assaults and a steady stream of questions from anxious voters, interviews with more than a dozen Blue Dogs and their top aides indicate that many of the lawmakers still believe approval of some form of health care plan is achievable and far preferable to not acting at all,” Carl Hulse reports in The New York Times. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel: “For the lion’s share of Democratic members of Congress, this isn’t about looking for a way to make this disappear. . . . This is about trying to find common ground for a yes vote.” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., is confident as well — because, he says, he knows Senate rules: “The fact of the matter is there is a rule that provides for the majority of the United States Senate to pass a health care bill. The majority of the Senate is Democratic,” Hoyer said at a town-hall forum Tuesday night in Waldorf, Md., per ABC’s Teddy Davis. “Under the rules of the Senate, they can pass health care,” he added. “It is not ramming it through.” The Boston Globe’s Lisa Wangsness and Sasha Issenberg: “Democrats are increasingly looking at Plan B: a politically risky, last-ditch ‘nuclear option’ designed to ram their proposals through over the objections of the other party.” While big labor just-about threatens its own… Of Democrats who oppose a public option, “We will continue to push it and say to them: 'Do so at your peril,” AFL-CIO secretary treasurer Richard Trumka told Davis. Get-away day: President Obama departs the White House at 11 am ET, headed to Camp David for the holiday weekend. Wednesday night, progressive groups including MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, and Health Care for American Now are sponsoring some 350 vigils — expecting 50,000 attendees — to “honor Americans who are currently suffering under the existing health care system and demonstrate the urgent need for health care reform with a real public health insurance option,” per the release. The vigils will include a memorial to Sen. Ted Kennedy. The clips that will be played at the events are HERE. Town hall of the day is in Allentown, Pa., Wednesday night: It’s Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., vs. former Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., in a possible preview of next fall’s Senate matchup, debating health care. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales lines up against former Vice President Dick Cheney: “As chief prosecutor of the United States, [Attorney General Eric Holder] should make the decision on his own, based on the facts, then inform the White House,” Gonzales said Tuesday on The Washington Times' “America's Morning News” radio show. Obama’s war: “U.S. officials are planning to add as many as 14,000 combat troops to the American force in Afghanistan by sending home support units and replacing them with ‘trigger-pullers,’ Defense officials say,” the Los Angeles Times’ Julian E. Barnes reports. “The move would beef up the combat force in the country without increasing the overall number of U.S. troops, a contentious issue as public support for the war slips. But many of the noncombat jobs are likely be filled by private contractors, who have proved to be a source of controversy in Iraq and a growing issue in Afghanistan.” The president formally receives the McChrystal report Wednesday: “Unlike his reading list for the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, the President has a little heavier read on his hands,” ABC’s Sunlen Miller reports. Meanwhile, in Iraq: “The State Department has extended a contract with controversial private security firm Blackwater, ABC News has learned. The contract was due to expire this month,” ABC’s Kirit Radia reports. “Sources say the department has agreed to temporarily continue using the subsidiary known as Presidential Airways to provide helicopter transport for embassy employees around Iraq until a new contract with another security company, Dyncorp International, is fully implemented. Presidential Airways is an arm of U.S. Training Center, which is a subsidiary of the company Xe, formerly and still commonly known as Blackwater.” In Massachusetts, first in the pool — and the frontrunner until or unless there’s a Kennedy in the race: “Attorney General Martha Coakley yesterday took out nomination papers to run for the Senate seat of Edward M. Kennedy, the opening salvo in what promises to be a fierce five-month-long race,” Frank Phillips and Matt Viser report in The Boston Globe. “Other potential candidates continued to tap dance around the issue, holding private conversations but giving no public indication of their intentions, as they awaited word on whether a Kennedy would enter the race. Former US representative Joseph P. Kennedy II is said to be eyeing a run, but it is not at all clear he will. Some associates say he is sounding like a candidate; others say he is expressing some reservations.” Fighting on, in South Carolina: “South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, stung by political attacks over his extramarital affair with an Argentine woman, said in his first extended interview since June that he no longer wants to ‘crawl into a cave’ and will fight to keep his job in the face of mounting public opposition,” The Wall Street Journal’s Valerie Bauerlein reports. “I have a newfound level of humility, knowing how hard I work and how hard I push is not the ultimate driver of change,” he said in the interview Monday. “Power resides with people.” (And: “Mr. Sanford described himself as ‘zen-like.’ ” 2012 stirrings: “While he remains publicly coy about the possibility of another White House bid, Mitt Romney’s calendar tells a very different story,” Politico’s Jonathan Martin reports. “From returning to a key early primary state to delivering an address before a social conservative conference and reuniting with members of his campaign-in-waiting, Romney is scheduled to spend a good deal of his September in a fashion befitting a man very much interested in running for president.” Why Mike Huckabee is mixing it up: “Nice guys finish last — at least that seems to be the lesson Mike Huckabee has learned from losing the 2008 GOP presidential nomination,” Newsweek’s Holly Bailey writes. “What’s interesting is the big picture here: Huckabee's own political evolution from nice-guy candidate into fighting conservative looking to tap into GOP anger over the Obama presidency.” Not overboard yet: “Speaker Nancy Pelosi will let Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) keep his chairmanship despite his failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets on federal disclosure forms, according to Democratic aides,” The Hill’s Alexander Bolton reports. Thought card-check was dead? “The Workforce Fairness Institute (WFI) today announced that local business and community leaders across the country will be conducting events in an effort to speak out against the anti-democratic and job-killing Employee ‘Forced’ Choice Act (EFCA). These local leaders will communicate that EFCA violates the right of workers to have a voice in contract negotiations, will harm small businesses, and a vote for cloture is a vote in favor of this job-killing legislation, whether it’s the bill as introduced or any so-called ‘compromise.’ Events will take place in Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Louisiana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.”
The Kicker: “Of course. . . . As you noticed, our team came in second.” — Tom Ridge, asked whether he’d ever wished that Sen. John McCain had chosen him as his running mate last year. “Sneeze into your arm with Elmo.” — Elmo, enlisted in the Obama administration’s war on H1N1 flu.
For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day: