The Take

The Take: Time for Obama to Regroup in Health-Care Battle

By Dan Balz
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who spent part of his August break fishing out west, offered a wry response this week when asked what the administration's plan is for health care. "Catch more fish," he e-mailed back.

Whether the tongue-in-cheek reply was designed to disguise changes underway inside the White House as President Obama and his team prepare for a fateful fall -- or a recommitment to the exceedingly patient approach that has marked the president's health-care strategy -- won't be clear until Congress returns. But it's difficult for the White House team to argue that August was a successful month for the president.

In August, the legislative battle on Capitol Hill gave way to a noisy public debate over health care waged, sometimes angrily, in town hall meetings from one corner of the country to the other. Obama's team would argue that the president and his allies have been able to rebut the worst of the inflammatory -- and false -- charges about the legislation pending in Congress.

That may be right: Its fate is not likely to turn on the issue of the fictitious death panels. In other ways, though, the month left the administration no better and perhaps worse off than it was when Congress left town, and it has Obama considering whether to make a speech in the coming days, specifying more about what the legislation should include.

The administration's wobbly rhetoric about the public option brought a backlash from liberal supporters of health-care reform. They are now threatening to turn the fight for retaining a public option in the bill into a crusade. At a time when the president needs unity among his supporters, they are divided. How high a price will Obama have to pay to try to reunify the Democrats, and will he follow them or will they follow him?

The cause of bipartisanship moved into reverse during August, though not because of anything Obama did or didn't do. In this case, two Republicans who the administration had hoped could be leaders in helping to work out a bipartisan bill unexpectedly turned harshly partisan in their rhetoric.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, increasingly sounded more like a politician worried about straying from his conservative base than a secure congressional leader eager to solve one of the nation's biggest and most persistent problems -- the cost and availability of health care.

Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, another member of the Finance Committee's Gang of Six, gave the Republican radio address on Saturday and sounded like someone spooked by the angriest of the town hall meetings. Rather than seeking consensus, he seemed intent on drawing lines in the sand.

Grassley and Enzi have been under enormous pressure from Republican colleagues opposed to Obama's health-care initiative as they have participated in Gang of Six discussions under the leadership of Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). The motives of Grassley and Enzi are now suspect, and the president (and Baucus) will have to make a judgment call about the cost of trying to keep them at the table vs. the cost of proceeding without them.

Obama has given Baucus a long leash through the summer, mindful that the executive and legislative branches are constitutionally separate. That strategy has come close to running its course. Baucus asked the White House to give him until Sept. 15 to produce something. Obama has let other deadlines slip. Can he afford to let this one slide without raising questions about his leadership?

Former Senate majority leader Bob Dole and former Democratic senator Bill Bradley weighed in with advice to the president over the weekend. Bradley said a grand bargain is still possible, but only if Obama is prepared to put tort reform on the table as an enticement to attract Republican support for universal coverage. Dole said Obama needs to take charge of the debate by laying out his real priorities, stated not in principles but in specifics.

From both veteran legislators, the message was clear: Obama must be prepared to wager more of his dwindling political capital, risk bucking some of the interests in his own party, challenge Republicans to be more than a party of "no" -- and get the job done. Dole and Bradley were saying Obama must lead.

But August did nothing to strengthen Obama's standing with the public. If anything, there was further erosion. Rhetoric alone can't do much about that for the time being, given all the issues now confronting Obama (though many Democrats want to see a greater effort to capture the moral high ground in the debate, which they fear has been surrendered). Progress and success are what he needs, even if in small doses.

The concern for Obama as Congress prepares to return is that lawmakers who are already looking ahead toward the 2010 midterm elections may be less willing to follow the president than they were six or eight months ago, when he was seen as the transformational winner of a historic election riding a mandate for change.

For much of the year, White House officials have been cautioning their Democratic allies on Capitol Hill that the party will rise or fall together, that failure is the worst possible outcome of the health-care debate because of what it would say about the Democrats' ability to govern. That remains a powerful motivator among Democrats, and it is one reason to believe that, in the end, Congress will send some kind of health-care bill to Obama for his signature.

But members of Congress and the president are now operating on conflicting political timetables. Obama doesn't have to worry about reelection until 2012, when the world could look quite different. Members of Congress have to face the voters in 14 months and already they are nervous about what they see. Once they start worrying mostly about their own survival, Obama's hold on them will be weakened.

Obama's self-confidence and patience are well known. If he has been rattled by the summer setbacks, he won't show it. But this is not the campaign of 2008. His team of Hill veterans knows that successful legislating is tedious and often comes in small, hard-won victories that ultimately add up to bigger success. That has been and remains their focus.

But if they hoped that August would significantly strengthen their hand for the long-awaited fall battles, they must be disappointed. The task looks as difficult today as it did when Congress left, if not more difficult. They could use some help. Whatever happened to that reset button that Secretary of State Clinton gave to the Russians?

© 2009 The Washington Post Company