Hurt Lingers: Amid distractions, Obama races clock on health care

By Jonathan Blakely

Mar 8, 2010 7:57am

By Rick Klein: To paraphrase the chief justice of the United States, the way to stop talking about health care reform is to stop talking about health care reform. That’s about as likely as John Roberts resigning. It’s another health care week, which means it’s not another jobs week, and maybe not a jobs month. Every administration has problems — big ones and little ones, short-term ones and long-term ones. For the president now, the macro and the micro are one: the structural deficiencies are relevant because the building blocks aren’t falling into place. The White House is facing a real-world political problem in rounding up the votes for health care, plus a classic Beltway one that’s threatening to make that first problem even trickier. Quieting palace intrigue won’t resolve this: President Obama needs to find that special something to underpin his presidency like he did his campaign, and find it in time to convince his fellow Democrats that it’s back. And he’s looking for it where he’s spent the past year: health care, with a final, final, final push that’s just about the votes in the end. (So much for not campaigning anymore…) “In a speech Monday in Philadelphia, Obama will try to persuade the public to back his plan to remake the nation's health care system, while also urging uneasy lawmakers to cast a ‘final vote’ for a massive reform bill in an election year,” the AP’s Julie Pace reports. “Obama's pitch in Philadelphia, along with a stop in St. Louis Wednesday, comes as the president begins an all-out effort to pass his health care proposals. Though his plan has received only modest public support, Obama has implored lawmakers to show political courage and not let a historic opportunity slip away.”  And if they do… Frank Rich, in his Sunday New York Times column: “Now that we have finally arrived at the do-or-die moment for Obama’s signature issue, we face the alarming prospect that his presidency could be toast if he doesn’t make good on a year’s worth of false starts. And it won’t even be the opposition’s fault. If too many Democrats in the House defect, health care will be dead. The G.O.P. would be able to argue this fall, not without reason, that the party holding the White House and both houses of Congress cannot govern.” Bloomberg’s Al Hunt, on the love and the not-so-much: Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod phoned him up to make the case for harmony. “This guy is responsible for all that we’ve done here; it’s his sheer will,” Axelrod said of the White House chief of staff. “That character of the brand is essential; David has been the key,” said Emanuel of Axelrod. Hunt: “Yet there is a larger self-created problem for which Emanuel and Axelrod are only partly to blame. Go back to the remarkable Obama campaign of 2007-2008. More than any of its rivals, it had a strategic sense of what it was, where it wanted to go. … That is missing in the Obama presidency. Too often it seems situational rather than strategic, reactive more than proactive. Thus setbacks, from minor ones, such as the handling of the Christmas Day bomber, to major ones, like the loss of the Senate seat in Massachusetts, throw team Obama off stride, and leave voters confused.” Lynn Sweet, in the Chicago Sun-Times: “Things are tense in the Obama White House. There have been disagreements. But that's different from suggesting there are substantive rifts within the close-knit group.” Sweet continues: “Last Monday, I learned, Obama made clear to senior staff — in an Oval Office meeting after he returned from a trip to Savannah, Ga. — that he didn't like these stories. He reminded them that it is ‘one for all and all for one’ in his administration.” “Don’t get absorbed in the Washington finger-pointing and intrigue,” Politico’s Mike Allen quotes the president as telling staffers. “The reason these questions have exerted such a powerful effect on the Obama story line is that much of the outside critique is grounded at least partly in reality,” Allen writes. “Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel gets criticized for biting off more than he can chew. And in fact, he manages political, policy and congressional portfolios that compete for his attention. Axelrod gets criticized for being so close to Obama for so long that he sometimes fails to appreciate and anticipate when the president's approach isn't resonating. And in fact, the message, which Axelrod often crafts, has been badly muddled at key points, primarily on health reform.” Obama as … Bush? Time’s Mark Halperin: “Obama has mimicked some of Bush's most egregious blunders, leading to much of the political predicament in which the present decider finds himself today.” “This is not to say that Obama has maintained Bush's policies, although his administration’s continuity on issues ranging from Afghanistan to Wall Street has alienated the left. And he certainly hasn't done himself any favors by failing to inspire the general public to rally around his agenda. But Obama's stumbles atop the high-wire of running the federal government has created perhaps the greatest danger to his presidency, and they are oddly reminiscent of the misguided practices which tripped up his predecessor.” Obama as … Clinton? “The public is uncomfortable with the current bill and this is likely to be a Dirty Harry moment for the Republican party as they dare Democrats to ‘make their day,’ ” Democratic strategist Mark Penn writes, at Real Clear Politics. “A lot has happened in the year since health care reform was introduced. Trying to pass it through reconciliation may work to generate a temporary victory, but it seems to dismiss the economic and political events of this year.” The New Yorker’s George Packer, on “Obama’s Lost Year”: The stalled effort to pass health-care reform has dominated analysis of the Administration’s difficulty in securing its agenda. But the key to Obama’s first year is the Recovery Act. It set the pattern for everything that followed: intelligent but cautious policymaking; legislative compromises that watered down the bill’s impact without enlisting more than a tiny number of Republicans; an immediate campaign by opposition politicians and media to declare the program a failure; a weak, uncoördinated Administration effort to explain and champion the stimulus package; gradual public disillusionment.” A different scapegoat: “There's plenty of story in the tale of a powerful White House chief of staff, but if anyone is looking for someone to hold accountable for the current state of the Obama presidency, it's the star of the production,” David Corn writes for Politics Daily. Michael Moore nominates himself for White House chief of staff: “We will take names, kick butts, and then take some more names. If we have to give a few noogies or half-nelson's, then so be it. In our pockets we will have a piece of paper to show the pansy Dems just how much they won by in 2008 — and the poll results that show the majority of Americans oppose the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and want the bankers punished. Like drill sergeants, we will get right up in their faces and ask them, ‘WHAT PART OF THE PUBLIC MANDATE DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND, SOLDIER?!! DROP AND GIVE ME 50!’ ” From the White House — a new, old argument: “The last few days have brought even more evidence that the health care status quo is working out great for the insurance companies — at the same time as it continues to fail American families and businesses. No wonder the insurance companies are spending millions and millions of dollars to block reform,” Dan Pfeiffer blogs for the White House. “On Wednesday, a leading insurance broker laid out in clear terms what many Americans could already guess: the insurers’ monopoly is so strong that they can continue to jack up rates as much as they like — even if it means losing customers — and their profits will continue to soar under the status quo.” “Mr. Obama will begin making what White House officials are calling the ‘closing arguments,’ focusing on steep increases in insurance premiums and his insistence that a comprehensive overhaul is needed rather than the incremental approach Republicans are demanding,” The New York Times’ David M. Herszenhorn reports. Anything we haven’t seen yet? “President Barack Obama is reviving his health care road show Monday, even as he admits every argument has been made and Republicans say voters have already rejected his plan, citing a slew of recent polls,” Glenn Thrush and Carrie Budoff Brown write for Politico. “Obama’s team finally seems to be embracing the paradox of 2010: It’s easier to be effective in Washington when you’re outside of it.” Getting the votes … The outside game, and the inside game: “Obama's signature ability to inspire fellow Democrats and Pelosi's well-honed ability to read their parochial needs will be tested as they tackle the job of finding the last stubborn votes for the healthcare bill,” Janet Hook and Noam M. Levey report in the Los Angeles Times. “The final push is giving Obama a chance to redeem himself among Democrats who have complained that he has been too detached from the nitty-gritty of crafting the healthcare bill. In recent weeks, he has taken control of the debate, giving his party a second chance after a string of setbacks. And Pelosi, while notably lacking in Obama's public communications skills, has displayed her ability to corral votes in the Capitol's inner sanctums, which will be a crucial asset.” The president will remain involved on abortion, in conversations with Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich.: “If that does not satisfy the congressman, the conversations will continue,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told Matthew Dowd on ABC’s “This Week.” “But certainly, his goal and the president's goal are the same — do not change the status quo on abortion.” Said Sebelius on Sunday: “We know what doing nothing looks like … and it looks pretty scary.” Not just abortion: “From stemming rising health care costs and addressing regional disparities on Medicare rates to a general skepticism of the Senate, rank-and-file House Democrats are struggling to support Mr. Obama's plan as they close in on midterm elections. Voters have become increasingly hostile to the effort,” the Washington Times’ Jennifer Haberkorn reports. “Some House Democrats wavering over whether to back a health-care overhaul questioned whether it would effectively curb the country's health costs, highlighting a difficult issue that the White House and congressional leaders must address in the final negotiations on the measure,” The Wall Street Journal’s John McKinnon and Jared Favole report. Reading between lines: “Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), who voted against the House health care reform bill last fall, refused to be pinned down Sunday on their willingness to approve a Senate-passed bill. But they gave Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reasons to be optimistic that she may be able to pull off passage of a massive reform bill this month,” Roll Call’s Emily Pierce and Paul Singer report. Threat from outside Washington: “The Virginia Legislature this week is poised to become the first state to pass legislation that says citizens cannot be required to have medical insurance,” Michael Kranish writes in The Boston Globe. “Dozens of other states are considering similar measures, possibly setting the stage for one of the greatest tests of federal power over the states since the civil rights era. If states are allowed to opt out of the mandate, the foundation of Obama’s effort would be undermined, turning the nascent revolt here into one with national implications.” This could be a big week for financial regulatory reform — but last week could have been that week, too. Where else the left is waiting: “For President Obama and Congressional Democrats, public opinion this past year has mostly gone in the wrong direction — on his job performance, on health care and economic stimulus, on midterm elections,” The New York Times’ John Harwood writes. “But there’s one conspicuous exception: the president’s call for reining in Wall Street. The nation’s continuing angst over bailouts, bonuses and bad mortgages has made sure of that.”   “The worst of the banking crisis may be long over, but the political contest over the Federal Reserve is entering a crucial phase in which its personality and role will almost certainly be redefined,” Jon Hilsenrath reports in The Wall Street Journal. Good storylines, abroad: “As President Barack Obama works to gain traction for his signature domestic initiative, the administration is welcoming some good news from overseas, including a relatively successful election in Iraq, a report of the dramatic capture of an American Al-Qaeda operative in Pakistan and signs of life in the Middle East peace process,” Politico’s Josh Gerstein writes. President Obama on Sunday, as Iraqis voted: “This election is also a tribute to all who have served and sacrificed in Iraq over the last seven years, including many who have given their lives.” The Washington Post’s Michael Fletcher: “The election marked a pivotal moment for both Iraq and the United States. For Iraqis, the election was its second since the United States led an invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003. For the United States, the relative success seems to keep the way clear to continue drawing down forces from the country.” “We saw the Iraqi security forces perform very well for the elections,” Gen. Ray Odierno told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, on “Good Morning America” Monday. “The next regular evolution of our process here in Iraq is for us to draw down to 50,000, and to move into our change of mission.” Vice President Joe Biden spends the week in the Middle East: “The Obama administration has boosted U.S. defense ties to Israel and will close ranks with its ally against any threat from a nuclear-armed Iran, Vice President Joe Biden said on Monday ahead of a trip to Israel,” Reuters reports. “Biden, the most senior U.S. official to visit since Israel President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, is widely expected to caution his hosts not to attack Iran pre-emptively while world powers pursue fresh sanctions against Tehran.” Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., explains the ethics charges, right before the last day he has to worry about them: “A staff member made an intonation to me that maybe I should be chasing after the bridesmaid and his points were clear and his words were far more colorful than that,” Massa told a radio interviewer Sunday, per Roll Call. “And I grabbed the staff member sitting next to me and said, ‘Well, what I really ought to be doing is fracking you.’ And then [I] tossled the guy’s hair and left, went to my room, because I knew the party was getting to a point where it wasn’t right for me to be there. Now was that inappropriate of me? Absolutely. Am I guilty? Yes.”  Watching warily this week: “The next month will be packed with critical go-or-no-go decisions for members of the House as filing deadlines arrive in 13 states,” The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza writes. “The deadlines are rapidly approaching in large states such as Pennsylvania (Tuesday) and California (Friday) as well as smaller but politically important places including Iowa and Missouri (both March 19).”  Moving on — Kevin Madden. From the release going out Monday: “Jim Dyke & Associates Announced that Kevin Madden, one of the nation’s top political communications strategists, has joined the firm as a partner and Executive Vice President of Public Affairs. Madden will open and direct operations in JDA’s new Washington, DC office.”
The Kicker: “I don't like it, and I don't know anybody who does.” — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on the much-maligned RNC fundraising presentation. “It was a third-party political correctness statement.” — Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., resigning today.
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