President Obama Seeks to Remake His Agenda as Health Care Divides Democrats

Some Say Obama Should Drop Health Care, Others Say He Should Push Ahead

ByJAKE TAPPER via logo
January 25, 2010, 8:11 AM

Jan. 25, 2010— -- Still reeling from the Democratic Party's loss in Massachusetts to Republican State Sen. Scott Brown, President Obama is hoping to remake his message as divisions deepen among Democrats on health care legislation.

The president has brought in his 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, to help run his political operation as he seeks to put his agenda back on track.

Recruited by Obama to supervise House, Senate and gubernatorial elections, Plouffe says Democrats need to push ahead.

"The health care plan has become a caricature," Plouffe said. "And if we walk away from it now, everyone who supported it is going to have all of the downside and none of the upside. We won the House and Senate in 2006, we won the presidency in 2008 ... calling for change.

"Well, that's just not a word. It was a lot about health care, about issues of energy. We have to deliver. If we don't deliver, I think voters will rightfully say, 'You know what's going on here?' We have to pass health care reform. And I think the politics of it [in] the months to come and years to come are going to be very favorable to us."

But unless the president and his party members explain to Americans that they have a coherent strategy, some Democrats say, the party risks losing seats in Congress.

"Right now, unless the president is able to change direction, we will have a rough 2010," Democratic strategist James Carville said on "Good Morning America" today. "You have to think, unless something is done to change direction, I think everything's at risk.

"I don't think it will happen," Carville said of Democrats' losing their majority. "You got to look at this thing in Massachusetts and see there's a real signal here. If you don't deal with it, it's going to get worse."

Some Democrats are already distancing themselves from Obama's agenda and the health care plan, exposing deep divisions in the Democratic Party.

A former Democratic congressman from Tennessee, Harold Ford Jr., said Democrats and the president should take lessons from their loss in Massachusetts and drop health care.

"With one out of five Americans unemployed or underemployed, President Obama and the Democratic Party need to shift attention away from health care and toward a bold effort to create jobs, improve the economy and rein in the size of government," Ford wrote in an op-ed in today's New York Times. "By focusing on job creation and deficit reduction, we can expand our economy and balance the budget."

But others, such as Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, disagree and say the president needs to be more combative.

"I want him to issue a call to arms," Rendell said.

"My message to those Democrats is don't be afraid. Listen, you got elected because you wanted to do something to change the quality of people's lives. Here we have a chance to do something historic and if it means some of us are going to lose because of that, so be it. At least you will have lost your office fighting for something and accomplishing something."

President Obama Seeks to Remake Message

Even with Brown in the Senate, Republicans will only have 41 votes, Rendell points out, still giving the Democrats a strong majority.

"Get that best bill as strong and as tight as you can, then send it back to the Senate and let's see if they [Republicans] are going to filibuster ..." he said. "Make them filibuster. Make them go before America people. Make the American people look at a modern day spectacle of what a filibuster would entail.

"I think it's time to call their bluff. I think it is too easy to throw up your hands and say we don't have 60 votes. Remember it's 51 votes for passage, they have to filibuster. Make them filibuster."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Democrats should pass a health care bill but then slow down.

"I think the president is going to have to scale back his agenda after we pass health care reform," Nelson said.

Nearly all Democrats agree that the president needs to convey his message more clearly to the public.

"You have to put things in context," Carville said. "If you look at what's happening, the president has to explain what he took over and what happened. President Reagan, if you go back to 1980, in his original State of the Union address, blasted Jimmy Carter."

Obama, Carville said, has to give Americans a clear sense that "he has a strategy to deal with this."

Rendell said Democrats "haven't done a very good job explaining what we're doing. We haven't done a good job on how well the stimulus is working, and we surely haven't done a good job explaining what's in the health care reform bill and what is at stake for the American people."

Plouffe said the president needs to implement short-term fixes for the economy but also still needs to focus on long-term solutions.

"I think the politics of the long-term will be very good for our party," he said. "Domestically, on health care, on energy, on financial reform, he [Obama] believes these things are critical to success of the country and a lot of it is for families and businesses to continue to thrive so we got to do that. ... If anything, we've got to communicate that more effectively."

It is still unclear what will happen with the health care legislation. It is in a "legislative limbo," a senior White House official said, adding that "what the American people want is a sense the president is out there addressing their concerns.

"We have to make it clear why we're doing what we're doing. We have to get out there and make it clear whose fighting for whom. [The year] 2009 was a referendum on Obama, but in 2010, it will be a referendum on who's taking on the special interests."

The president is likely to get back on the road, at least once a week, including the day after his State of the Union address Wednesday.

In addition to the return of top aides such as Plouffe, other midlevel operatives from the 2008 Obama campaign who helped bring candidate Obama victories in Iowa and in Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primary states, will be enlisted to work on campaigns to keep expected Democratic losses to a minimum, aides said.

The president has also ordered a review of the Democratic Party's entire political operation.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden today discussed some items that will appear in the State of the Union address, including proposals to increase the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit for middle-class families making less than $85,000 a year to 35 percent from 20 percent of qualifying expenses, capping student federal loan payments to 10 percent of the student's income above a basic living allowance, requiring all employers to give workers an option of automatic workplace direct-deposit IRAs, expanding tax credits to match retirement savings and expanding support for families balancing work with caring for elderly relatives.

ABC News' Huma Khan contributed to this report.