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Sunday Take: For Obama, August Means Sharpening His Message, Rallying His Party

President Obama must get both his health-care initiative and his party pointed in the right direction.
President Obama must get both his health-care initiative and his party pointed in the right direction. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Dan Balz
Sunday, August 9, 2009

President Obama once looked to the August congressional recess as the moment to gain a decisive advantage in the fight to overhaul the nation's health-care system. Instead, he needs to use the month to rebalance his presidency.

July proved the most difficult month of his young administration. His approval ratings dropped. Disapproval of his major initiatives rose sharply. Neither the House nor the Senate met his deadline to pass a version of health care. Finally, the White House and its allies at the Democratic National Committee ended up in a high-pitched argument over whether citizens protesting health care were expressing real or manufactured anger.

That raises the stakes for August. As Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg put it: "Everybody understands they [Obama and his Democratic allies] have to be in a new chapter when they come back at the end of August."

White House officials took hope from the first week of August that they might be seeing a turn in their fortunes. They cited as evidence the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the apparent killing of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in Pakistan, the release of two American journalists from North Korea and a better-than-expected jobless report. It will take more than a week of such news to turn around public perceptions.

Administration officials were braced for a worse unemployment report on Friday. Now they are nervously awaiting the release of the midyear economic review from the Office of Management and Budget, which may show how much deficit projections have deteriorated from forecasts earlier this year. The White House line is that the economy has avoided the worst, thanks to the president's policies. How long it will take for a real recovery to begin -- and for public attitudes to shift -- is another matter.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff points to several factors that underscore the predicament for Obama. First is the likelihood that consumer confidence will not rebound swiftly, even if the Dow continues to rise and the recession appears to be weakening. In years past, it has taken two to nearly four years for consumer confidence to rebound after it has dipped as low as it did in this recession. "We have a long, long way to go before people start feeling better about the economy," he said.

McInturff's second observation is that declining confidence in the president's economic policies has affected attitudes about the rest of Obama's agenda and his overall leadership. Much attention has been focused over the past few weeks on the health-care battle, but McInturff sees the landscape differently. "We're not having a health-care fight," he said. "There is a broad and underlying unease about the state of the economy and the country. . . . I think the Obama administration needs to understand that health care is interwoven with these broader concerns."

Obama's team hopes that the less-bad jobless report and the recent gross domestic product report that showed the rate of decline slowing considerably in the second quarter will help create more public optimism. If McInturff is right, that may take longer than White House officials had hoped. Nor is it certain that better feelings about the economy will lessen opposition to the Democrats' health-care initiatives.

What Obama should do, in the estimation of some of his allies, is use August to accomplish several things. One is to reunite the Democratic Party on health care. For the past two months, Democrats have carried on a very public debate over the issue; that has slowed the pace of reform and has affected confidence in the president's leadership.

Obama needs his party's lawmakers to return to Washington after Labor Day ready to move on health care. If failure is not an option, as so many Democrats say, August will have to be a time in which consensus takes shape. Obama still holds out hope of enacting health care with the help of some Republicans, but without a united Democratic Party there is virtually no hope for success.

"A Democratic Party that is united and making progress will have a major impact on his standing," Greenberg said.

The month has begun with a noisy, partisan fight -- not so much about the details of health-care policy but about who is behind the protests at town-hall meetings. It's easy for both sides to fall into this battle and even easier, it seems, for the rhetoric to get beyond overheated.

If the opposition represents mostly an ideological fringe, that will become clearer soon. If the most boisterous opponents represent a broader sense of discontent, Obama will have a bigger problem to deal with. By all indications, a mighty public relations battle will unfold in August, along with whatever happens at the town halls. But the president might benefit most from helping to cool temperatures.

Obama has dealt with adversity before. His early months as a candidate were anything but smooth. Two years ago this month, he was on the defensive. His foreign policy pronouncements were drawing attacks from his rivals. He lagged significantly behind Hillary Rodham Clinton in the national polls. His message was still a work in progress. His campaign operation appeared to be sputtering.

Obama went to work. He ordered his team to step up. He found a sense of exhilaration from the foreign policy debate and refused to let his advisers give ground. He worked and reworked to hone a sharper message. He reassured the doubters among his campaign contributors and others, who were calling for a new strategy. By late fall 2007, the elements of what became his successful campaign came together.

The problems of today are different, of course. But the lesson from Obama's experience as a candidate is that he is capable of mid-course corrections -- particularly in addressing his own shortcomings and in redoubling his determination to succeed. That's what the month of August may tell everyone about him.


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