Light Touches: Obama Stays Above Health Care Fray

By Gorman Gorman

Dec 7, 2009 8:19am

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports: He was spending part of his Sunday with some friends and former colleagues who work down the street — that doesn't mean they had to talk about the tough stuff.

President Obama's latest press for a health care deal looks pretty much like the last one, and the one before that: Thinking big, not small, even as senators work their way into the fine print of health care reform.

This has been the White House strategy from the start: Provide the impetus and the inspiration, and leave the details to Congress. White House representatives are in the negotiating rooms that count, but when the president himself gets involved (and his schedule is sort of full these days), he's looking broad.

How long can it last? We get to see this week, as an abortion amendment comes up for a vote, and a public option compromise lingers just slightly out of reach.

All this in advance of a jobs speech Tuesday, a quick trip to Norway to collect a Nobel Peace Prize, and the start of an international climate conference that the president will be on hand to close next week. Whew.

"Ever since Mr. Obama took office, critics of his leadership style have accused him of tackling too many initiatives at once," John Harwood writes for The New York Times. "Now, as Mr. Obama's approval rating in polls has dwindled to 50 percent or below, that criticism has grown louder."

The pressure: "The calendar of politics has an urgency that the dilatory pace of the U.S. Senate doesn't match," E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post column. "Getting a health-care bill is important on its own, but it's central to establishing Obama's credentials as a domestic reformer and to proving that Democrats are capable of governing."

On health care — it's hard to own an issue any more than this. But for those looking for some active ownership — any trips into the legislative weeds have been delayed, again.

"That wasn't a negotiation, that was a pep talk," the president said on his way out of the Sunday meeting with Senate Democrats, per Time's Jay Newton-Small.

On that, broad agreement: "Senators indicated that Obama's appearance before a special Democratic caucus was mostly symbolic of his support for their efforts, considering he offered no specifics on the type of compromise he would like to see on contentious issues," Roll Call's Emily Pierce and David Drucker report.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. (speaking loudly and softly at the same time): "For those who have made a decision to be supportive I think he was persuasive."

"Though Mr. Obama gave them no guidance on the question, Senate Democrats on Sunday intensified their yearlong effort to build consensus around some form of a public insurance plan to compete with private insurers," Robert Pear and David M. Herszenhorn report in The New York Times.

ABC's Jake Tapper reports: "You need to finish the job," the president urged senators. "The most costly outcome for everyone would be from a failure to finish."

Getting there: "Democrats worked into the evening, and although they reported some progress, they failed to reach agreement on one of the most vexing sources of discord: whether to establish a government-run health insurance option," Lisa Wangsness writes in The Boston Globe.

Contours of compromise: "In closed-door negotiations Sunday, Democrats on both sides of the issue who were assigned by Sen. Reid to find a compromise were nearing agreement on an alternative that would empower the government's Office of Personnel Management to run a new national health plan," Greg Hitt and Janet Adamy write in The Wall Street Journal. "The office already oversees the federal employee health plan, and administration officials have pointed to it as an example of how the government can successfully run a health-insurance program."

The talks suggest "that the chances a final bill will include a pure public option are diminishing," Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown reports.

Still missing: "The legislation has no master plan for dealing with the problem of soaring medical costs. And this is a source of deep unease," Atul Gawande writes in The New Yorker.

Look for an abortion vote early this week: "The abortion amendment, expected to be offered by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), is similar to language approved by the House," Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Even amendment supporters say it is unlikely to prevail. A key question, however, is whether a further compromise will have to be struck to win Nelson's support for the overall bill."

On Afghanistan — an exit strategy that isn't one: "I don't consider this an exit strategy. And I try to avoid using that term," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week." "This is a transition that's going to take place."

Signaling in a few different directions: "The Obama administration sent a forceful public message Sunday that American military forces could remain in Afghanistan for a long time, seeking to blunt criticism that President Obama had sent the wrong signal in his war-strategy speech last week by projecting July 2011 as the start of a withdrawal," Mark Mazzetti writes in The New York Times.

"Top military officials have rebutted Republican criticism of the administration's timetables for Afghanistan," Sean Lengell reports in the Washington Times.

The week's real tension: "Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, goes before Congress this week, and with him comes this question: Who's really in charge here, the generals or President Barack Obama?" Politico's David Rogers writes. "Appropriations committees, senior Democra ts — themselves veterans of past wars — have grown increasingly concerned by the political clout of a generation of younger, often press-savvy military commanders."

Said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.: "The president's decision is already being softened and made mush of."

All this time — to get where we started? "When he finishes testifying on Capitol Hill this week, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, will return to Kabul to implement a war strategy that is largely unchanged after a three-month-long White House review of the conflict," Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Greg Jaffe write in The Washington Post.

Bloomberg's Al Hunt: "Privately, top administration officials will tell you odds of success are no better than even. Those are lousy odds except compared with the others."

From the other side — Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., on ABC's "This Week": "If we continue this policy and build up these troops, there's going to be more and more members of Congress who aren't comfortable with it, and it's not just going to be Democrats."

Climate talk: "The two-week United Nations Climate Change conference officially kicked off in Copenhagen, Denmark this morning, a gathering expected to attract 15,000 delegates, activists, and journalists from around the globe," ABC's Clayton Sandell reports. "President Obama will bring with him a proposal to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020, and 83 percent by 2050."

AFP's Shaun Tandon: "President Barack Obama is investing heavily in their success but is walking a tightrope as he weathers criticism both at home and abroad…. [T]he US Congress has not finished legislation to cut emissions blamed for global warming and his opponents have been emboldened by a scandal over leaked emails that they say raises questions on the science behind climate change. Obama is nonetheless putting numbers on the table."

"When you look at what they're proposing, it's absolutely unimpressive," Kevin Conrad, executive director of the Coalition for Rainforest Nations and a special envoy for Papua New Guinea, tells The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin.

Waiting on the US: "Negotiators in Copenhagen will try to nail down all the main elements of a treaty to curb global warming in the next two weeks, but a final agreement won't be possible until the United States figures out what it will do to reduce emissions of heat-trapping pollution," McClatchy's Renee Schoof reports.

Making the case — with a bounce in his step: "Maybe I'm naïve, but I'm feeling optimistic about the climate talks starting in Copenhagen on Monday. President Obama now plans to address the conference on its last day, which suggests that the White House expects real progress," Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times column.

The Obama administration is sending a TARP update to Congress Monday. ABC's Jake Tapper has the details — including taxpayers $20 billion profit on money invested in banks (thought the money going to automakers and AIG hasn't worked out so well yet).

Looking to Tuesday, per Tapper, on "Good Morning America" Monday: President Obama will unveil plans to expand green jobs, provide new incentives for small businesses, and invest in more infrastructure spending.

The Baucus affair: "In nominating his girlfriend for the job of U.S. attorney, Montana Sen. Max Baucus didn't disclose the relationship to the White House, Montana's other senator or a local attorney tapped to review potential candidates," The Wall Street Journal's Brody Mullins and Julie Jargon report.

Bill O'Reilly's Obama report card, on "GMA": on health care: "D as in dog"; "B — boy for jobs"; on Afghanistan: "C — took him far too long to make a decision."
A classic — one that's getting a Drudge boost: "It's hardly the image of transparency the Obama administration wants to project: A workshop on government openness is closed to the public," the AP's Sharon Theimer reports.

Also on the Monday radar: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., hits the "Party of No" theme, in a 2 pm ET speech at the Center for American Progress in Washington:

"No one expects Republicans to roll over for President Obama. But the 'Party of No' strategy is so disappointing because the history of Congress is full of loyal oppositions that shared responsibility for governing in trying times and shaped some of the most important legislation of their eras. It is not asking too much for today's Republicans to rise to those examples," Hoyer plans to say, per excerpts released to The Note.

"It's easy to say that Democrats actually want extremism to be the face of the opposition — that we would be happy for the 'Party of No' to keep saying no. But that's not true. When we say no to the work of legislating, we do real harm to the institution of Congress and our nation's future."

Sarah Palin. Iowa. 'Nuff said.

Except that there's more to say: "Turns out it didn't take camping out overnight to ensure getting an autograph Sunday from 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin," Bret Hayworth reports in the Sioux City Journal. "People who showed up at 1:30 p.m — just as Palin arrived some 90 minutes late — were able to hop in at the end of the line and get an autograph by 3 p.m., just before the former Alaska governor left. Palin arrived late after visiting the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., earlier Sunday."

"With temperatures hovering in the mid-teens, people from near and far traveled to Sioux City, Iowa, to see former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and get the Alaskan to sign their copies of her autobiography, 'Going Rogue,' " ABC's Barbara Pinto, Jesus Ayala, and Sidney Wright IV report.

What Palin didn't do: "There were no meetings with influential local activists, no contact with the state GOP, nor any time devoted to chit-seeking efforts to raise cash for other candidates," Politico's Jonathan Martin reports. "But if the former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate's maiden trip to the Hawkeye State as a presidential prospect was unusual by Iowa precedent, the event illustrated why she doesn't necessarily need to stick to the traditional playbook – and raised the possibility that even sacrosanct political dictums of Iowa can be bent or even broken."

One last day of campaigning, in Massachusetts, in the primary campaign for Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat. Frontrunner Martha Coakley gets a late boost from former President Bill Clinton, who's recorded a robocall for the state's attorney general.

Dan Payne's analysis, in The Boston Globe: "[Martha] Coakley is still the odds-on favorite but a strong final kick by [Michael] Capuano could make it close. He needs a late endorsement from Joseph Kennedy Jr. [Alan] Khazei has a shot to finish third; he and also-ran [Mike] Pagliuca could siphon off enough votes to deny Capuano a victory."

The Kicker:

"Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts. … And when you don't, you end up in a place like this." — Sarah Palin, at the Gridiron Club.

"I hope that's kind of a breakthrough here. … We've got to start trusting each other. It's rarely done." — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, on his decision to (briefly) cede control of the Senate to the GOP during Democrats' caucus with President Obama. (Republicans didn't try anything they wouldn't have done with Democrats in the room.)

For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note's blog . . . all day every day:

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