Capital Crunch: Obama confronts waning political capital

By Gorman Gorman

Oct 5, 2009 8:15am

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports: Think the White House may want to work on its vote-counting operation before the health care bill makes it to the Senate floor?

Think the CBO might be just as brutal as the IOC — with scoring that counts just as much?

Think the public debate over Afghanistan strategy gets any easier as events shape perceptions?

Nobody will much remember a 24-hour trip to Denmark in early fall if, by the start of winter, there’s a health care bill in place and a Afghanistan policy everyone in the administration can agree to.

But whether President Obama’s focus turns abroad again or stays at home for a stretch, the president is confronting the limits of his political capital — from an Olympic loss, to the near-certain loss of a public option in a health care bill, and the end of streamlined decision-making on Afghanistan.

This is a time where the president needs to be spending his capital — in the halls of Congress, and on the world stage. But when he talks, who is listening? (And does the president lose options himself the longer he chooses to keep listening?)

Testing time: “A number of factors have combined to strip him of the camouflage that he once enjoyed when it comes to health-care policy,” David Broder writes in his Sunday Washington Post column. “His main leverage point is the realization among nearly all Democrats that nothing would be as costly to them, in their individual 2010 races, as the failure of this Congress, with its heavy Democratic majorities, to pass a substantive health-reform bill. That may be enough in the end for Obama to succeed. But the task of getting there will really test him — and expose his core values.”

Thirteen months before the mid-term elections: “Obama is trying to prod Congress into passing legislation on health care overhaul, climate change, and financial services regulation by early next year, before election-year political pressures make it harder to persuade wary lawmakers to vote for the dramatic change Obama promised in his campaign,” Susan Milligan reports in The Boston Globe. “He must also make difficult decisions on whether to increase troop strength and commit America to a larger, longer mission in Afghanistan. And the economy, while apparently on the road to recovery, is still not producing new jobs and continues to generate anxiety around the country.” Rep. Chris Van Hollen: “I do believe that if we are not successful in passing health care reform, it will make it much more difficult to enact other major initiatives,” said Van Hollen, D-Md., the DCCC chairman. (Ya think?)The White House is using its Monday to re-set the focus of the debate on health care — again.

At 11:10 am ET in the Rose Garden, “the President will welcome doctors from across the country to an event in the Rose Garden, where he will deliver remarks on the need for health insurance reform this year.” (They’re coming from every state, which means plenty of local-media pick-up.)

(And Organizing for America wants letters from doctors — and others — to make the case: “You don’t have to be a doctor or an expert to write an effective letter — you just have to have an opinion or a personal story to share. And these letters are short, usually just a paragraph or two, but they can have a huge impact because it shows your representatives and the media what local folks are thinking in the most public way possible.”)

Yet even inside the Finance Committee — a still-uncertain fate? Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., remain on the fence — along with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

“At least two Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee have refused to pledge support for the health-care reform bill scheduled for a vote this week, underscoring the hard work ahead for President Obama as he tries to enact the most ambitious domestic policy legislation in more than a generation,” Ceci Connolly reports in The Washington Post. “Committee defeat of the bill is an unlikely scenario, but one that highlights the power every Senate Democrat — and perhaps a few Republicans — holds going forward in a process that could stretch beyond Thanksgiving.”

Might the public option live? “Senior administration officials have been holding private meetings almost daily at the Capitol with senior Democratic staff to discuss ways to include a version of the public plan in the healthcare bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring to the Senate floor this month, according to senior Democratic congressional aides,” the Los Angeles Times’ Noam N. Levey and Janet Hook report.

“It … marks a crucial test of Obama’s command of the inside game in Washington in which deals are struck behind closed doors and wavering lawmakers are cajoled and pressured into supporting major legislation,” they write.

“All that time I’m going to be battling to keep what we’ve won and get what we haven’t won,” Sen. Rockefeller told Politics Daily’s Jill Lawrence.

More optimism: “Sen. Chuck Schumer still likes the chances of a come-from-behind win for a public health care plan, no matter how improbable it looked after striking out last week,” Michael McAuliff writes in the New York Daily News. “Schumer is on the Finance Committee, which turned thumbs down on his plan for a government-run insurance choice. But he said the close 13-to-10 loss actually shocked the effort back to life – and time is now on his side. ‘The press missed the point,’ Schumer told the Daily News. He noted that two moderate senators who opposed an earlier version switched to support the government-run option.”

How do two Senate bills become one? “First the Finance Committee bill must be combined with a more liberal version that the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee wrapped up this summer,” per the AP’s Erica Werner. “This merger is so rare that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has never attempted it on any piece of legislation — much less one as complex as President Barack Obama’s top legislative priority. The senator from Searchlight, Nev., will need plenty of guiding light.”

Meanwhile, in the easy chamber: “There’s no end in sight for the health care debate in the House, and behind the scenes, Democrats are pointing their fingers at the Senate Finance Committee’s slow pace, the White House’s lack of guidance, and their own Caucus’ warring factions for the delays,” Roll Call’s Steven T. Dennis reports.

Maybe President Obama can wait just a bit longer …
Time’s Karen Tumulty: “Then comes a conference committee, and a struggle within the Democratic Party over the Senate bill and what is certain to be a more liberal version passed by the House. That’s the point, all sides agree, where they will be looking to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue for guidance. Barack Obama will no longer be able to stand on the sidelines and will have to declare his own position on many of the issues that have divided his party.”

A wrinkle, from the states: “Whether Medicaid can absorb a huge influx of beneficiaries is a matter of grave concern to many governors, who have cut low-income health benefits — along with school funding, prison construction, state jobs and just about everything else — to cope with the most severe economic downturn in decades,” Shailaigh Murray writes in The Washington Post.

Gov. Phil Bredesen, D-Tenn.: “I can’t think of a worse time for this bill to be coming.”

The counter, from Gov. Martin O’Malley, D-Md.: “We have to pay a little bit more in order to realize the long-term savings and bring down the cost curve. And that’s what the Obama administration is doing, and I’m very much encouraged by the direction in which it’s going,” O’Malley, vice chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said Friday on’s “Top Line.”

Labor’s latest push on health care, from an AFL-CIO official: “Over 125 labor leaders and workers from 27 states are doing a fly in to meet with their respective House and Senate delegations on health care. In addition to the meeting itself these leaders will be delivering tens of thousands HAND WRITTEN letters from their states outlining what working Americans need from health care reform. As part of the meetings individual workers will be sharing their stories directly with their representatives.”
Airing starting Monday, in Las Vegas and Reno: Health Care for America Now is up with a new TV ad targeting Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., a member of the Finance Committee (and, as the ad gently reminds us, someone who’s been in the news for some other reasons as well). “Lately there’s been a lot of controversy about John Ensign… Why did John Ensign side with the insurance companies instead of us? Follow the money.”

Republican angst: “GOP leaders, in a private meeting last month, delivered a blunt and at times heated message to RNC Chairman Michael Steele: quit meddling in policy,” Politico’s Manu Raju and Jonathan Martin report. “The plea was made during what was supposed to be a routine discussion about polling matters and other priorities in House Minority Leader John Boehner’s office. But the session devolved into a heated discussion about the roles of congressional leadership and Steele.”

As for the economy — mixing things up for members of Congress, with a little deception: “The Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve lied to the American public last fall when they said that the first nine banks to receive government bailout funds were healthy, a government watchdog states in a new report released today,” ABC’s Matthew Jaffe reports. “Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP), says that despite multiple statements on Oct. 14 of last year that these nine banks were healthy and only receiving government funds for the good of the country’s economy, federal officials knew otherwise.”

Bipartisanship — or at least some agreement on what should be done to extend benefits to struggling Americans. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos: “Two leading Senators showed a brief moment of bipartisanship this morning. Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican John Cornyn both told me they agree the Senate should pass an extension of unemployment benefits, COBRA, and the $8,000 tax credit for first time homebuyers. Schumer said the Senate would act this week on unemployment benefits.”

Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan doesn’t want a second stimulus: “I think the focus has got to be on trying to get the economy going. But also have to be careful in trying to do too much would be counterproductive,” he told Stephanopoulos on “This Week.”

Making your own bright spots: “Publicly, White House aides and Congressional leaders have responded with incessant attempts to highlight benefits from the $787 billion economic stimulus package they enacted earlier this year,” John Harwood writes in The New York Times. “Privately, Mr. Obama’s economic advisers are sifting options for a new package of tax cuts and other job creation measures to be unveiled in next year’s State of the Union address — or earlier if pressure for action becomes irresistible.”

Ross Douthat, in his New York Times column: “This landscape will put liberalism to the test. Since Ronald Reagan was elected nearly 30 years ago, Democratic politicians have promised that their program could reverse the steady post-1970s growth of income inequality without sacrificing America’s economic dynamism. But having promised win-win, they may deliver lose-lose. In the short run, Barack Obama could preside over an America that’s more economically stagnant and more stratified.”

One trip to Copenhagen may not be enough: “President Barack Obama’s failure to land the Olympics on a visit to Copenhagen hasn’t diminished pressure from environmentalists for him to return there this year on another risky mission: winning a global warming accord,” Bloomberg’s Kim Chipman reports. “Obama’s decision may hinge on whether he has U.S. climate- change legislation to tout at the December meeting. While the House of Representatives passed a bill to cap greenhouse-gas emissions in June, Democratic Senators John Kerry and Barbara Boxer introduced a proposed bill three days ago.”

A scramble that’s good for the politics? “The flurry of companies quitting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is highlighting how the climate-change issue is straining traditional alliances in Washington, as some businesses seek to profit from overhauling the energy market and others try to cut deals to head off tougher regulation,” Stephen Power reports in The Wall Street Journal.

Maybe it was OK to return from this trip empty-handed. Newsweek’s Katie Connolly: “This is pretty embarrassing for the White House. (Especially letting Obama having to fail in front of his wife — ouch!) But ultimately, it’s a good thing for him. As I wrote on Monday, the Olympics are notorious for running massively over budget. The organizing committees are always rife with infighting and power games as all manner of colorful cronies badger members to get their paws on some of those coveted Olympics dollars.”

On Afghanistan, a bloody weekend at a difficult time: “Eight American troops were killed this weekend in the deadliest assault against U.S. troops in Afghanistan in more than a year, placing growing pressure on an administration deliberating its strategy there amidst waning public support,” ABC’s Kristina Wong reports.

“Attacks like these do not build confidence with the locals,” ABC’s Chris Cuomo reported on “Good Morning America” Monday.

“At this point, no surge,” Peter Galbraith, formerly the top American official at the UN mission in Afghanistan, told Diane Sawyer on “GMA.” “Of course we don’t operate in a perfect world, but we also don’t have unlimited resources.”

The public debate continues: “National security adviser James L. Jones suggested Sunday that the public campaign being conducted by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan on behalf of his war strategy is complicating the internal White House review underway, saying that ‘it is better for military advice to come up through the chain of command,’ ” The Washington Post’s Scott Wilson reports. “One question at the core of the debate is whether the military benefit of sending additional U.S. combat forces to Afghanistan would outweigh the propaganda victory such a deployment would give the Taliban, which appeals to the public with messages of resistance to the foreign occupation.”

Political dangers: “There’s a jelling conventional wisdom that if Obama doesn’t go all in with McChrystal’s strategy, he is admitting defeat and backing away from his earlier pledges. Those who want him to commit now are impatient for a decision,” E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his column. “Obama should resist both their impatience and their criticism of his search for an alternative strategy. The last thing he should do is rush into a new set of obligations in Afghanistan that would come to define his presidency more than any victory he wins on health care.”

Bloomberg’s Al Hunt: “Zbigniew Brzezinski says a central consideration for President Barack Obama, as he faces an agonizing choice over Afghanistan, is what happened to the Russians in the 1980s and after they were driven out in 1989. . . . Thirty years ago, after initial concerns the Russians would succeed in Afghanistan, it became clear to Brzezinski that once they were viewed as ‘occupiers,’ they would be thwarted and eventually driven out. He doesn’t want Obama to make the same mistake with a mindless escalation. Thus, he is skeptical of the request of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, for as many as 40,000 additional combat troops.”

Limiting the options: “Nearly two dozen House liberals have signed onto a bill introduced this past week that would prohibit an increase of troops in Afghanistan,” The Hill’s Michael O’Brien reports.

GOP pollster Frank Luntz’s new book is out: “What Americans Really Want … Really.” He chatted about it on “Top Line” Friday, and shared the polling data used to derive his conclusions. One highlight: 72 percent of respondents said they agree with the statement, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

The Kicker:

“Mr. President, this is your ‘holy-s*** moment.’ ” — Christina Romer, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, at a December 2008 meeting with the president and his transition team, per The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza.

“Today’s vote by the IOC members reflects the tattered relationships that remain after eight years of the catastrophic reign of the Bush administration.” — Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., letting President Obama off the hook for Chicago’s loss.

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