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The Change Agenda At a Crossroads
From Health Care to Wars to Public Anxiety, Obama's Strength as a Leader Is Tested

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 2009

As President Obama's senior advisers gathered at Blair House at the end of July for a two-day review of their first six months in office, what was meant to be a breath-catching moment of reflection was colored by a sense of unease.

To a sleep-deprived White House staff, the achievements since taking office that chilly morning of Jan. 20 seemed self-evident. The agenda of necessity they had carried out to stabilize the economy was rapidly making room for Obama's agenda of choice: changing the way Americans receive health care, generate and consume energy, and learn in public school classrooms.

But opinion polls showed support for the president and his policies dipping sharply, and the disheartening numbers had shaken the confidence of some of Obama's staff. Vice President Biden addressed the anxiousness when the Cabinet and senior staff met in the State Dining Room in the White House residence the next morning.

"Did you really think this was going to be easy?" Biden said, according to one participant.

The slide has only quickened. Emerging from an angry August recess, Obama is weakened politically and faces growing concerns, particularly from within his own party, over his strength as a leader. Dozens of interviews this summer in six states -- from Maine to California -- have revealed a growing angst and disappointment over the administration's present course.

Democratic officials and foot soldiers, who have experienced the volatile public mood firsthand, are asking Obama to take a more assertive approach this fall. His senior advisers say he will, beginning with his Wednesday address to Congress on health care.

His challenge, however, is more fundamental. Obama built his successful candidacy and presidency around a leadership style that seeks consensus. But he is entering a period when consensus may not be possible on the issues most important to his administration and party. Whatever approach he takes is likely to upset some of his most ardent supporters, many of whom are unwilling to compromise at a time when Democrats control the White House and Congress.

"Until last week, he was still trying to play ball with the Republicans who said, 'We're going to bring you down,' " said Karen Davis, 42, a musician from Jersey City who raised funds for Obama last year. "Now I'm thinking, 'This isn't what I voted for.' "

Obama has brought change over his first seven months in office, often through direct government intervention, to areas as different as the conflict in Iraq and the American auto industry.

The economy is improving and bailed-out banks are paying back the money with interest. A smooth Supreme Court selection has brought the first Hispanic justice, Sonia Sotomayor, to the highest bench. America's standing in the world is improving, according to many polls, after Obama's widely broadcast address to the Muslim world, prohibition of torture in interrogation and decision to close the military brig at Guantanamo Bay.

But Obama's spending plans that will require $9 trillion in new borrowing over the next decade have alarmed conservatives in his own party, and he could not head off an investigation by his own Justice Department into the Bush administration's interrogation policies that he had made clear he did not want. Unemployment is still rising. His decision to expand the war in Afghanistan, deploying thousands of additional U.S. troops, has not come with a clear plan for how to leave.

Even though polls show fallen approval ratings, Obama remains more personally popular than his policies. His senior advisers say his leadership strength derives from the ability to remain calm in the maelstrom of 24-hour news cycles, a mark of his once-long-shot 2008 campaign. The anti-government anger that has risen from a thousand town hall meetings over the recess is now testing Obama's celebrated communication skills and a political style one confidante described as "unsentimental."

"I know there is great value associated in this town with the straight right jab and the occasional knee to the groin," said David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser. "He'll throw the jab when he sees it, when he feels it's necessary. But he's not likely to throw the knee."

Economy Clouds View

The ferment beyond the Beltway and the challenge it poses to Obama's agenda this fall is apparent off the Orange Blossom Trail, a wide commercial strip that runs out of Orlando, past the check-cashing stores, self-storage centers and adult emporiums.

The Hunter's Creek development is a mix of 8,700 homes and condominiums, a middle-class sanctuary with neighborhoods named Falcon Pointe and Osprey Links. Like much of Central Florida, it has burst open along with the housing bubble. Foreclosure filings are pending against 1,000 properties there.

On a recent evening, Rep. Alan Grayson, a freshman Democrat, arrived for a housing forum, which like many of his recent public events involved a police presence. A Harvard-educated lawyer, Grayson offered grim if unsurprising figures in a region where even Disney has laid off hundreds of workers this year.

"We all know that what we need is a healthy economy," Grayson told them. "And it's in times like these that we discover what kind of people we are."

In his summer travels, Obama has argued that the stimulus program's $787 billion mix of spending and tax cuts, the bank bailouts, and the decision to prop up General Motors and Chrysler through bankruptcy have nudged the economy toward recovery.

But the view from the Hunter's Creek Community Center, where 150 of Grayson's constituents had assembled to hear how the government intended to help them keep their homes, was shaded by fear over the president's ventures into the private sector and other planned reforms.

"A large portion of our problem right now is the result of our own fault," John Kulifay, a stout, balding retired engineer, said when called on to speak. "The other problem is the government itself. Please keep your fingers out of this. Let us fix it."

Applause erupted, along with the cry, "Stop the redistribution!"

The anxiety stretches from New England to the Pacific Ocean, judging by recent visits, and is rooted in the measures Obama has implemented to shore up the economy.

A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly, said that "there were so many things we had to do, and those are the things that feed into the skepticism that government is taking over everything or can't get it right."

"These were things we had no interest in doing," the official said. "That's the irony."

Political Capital

Activist presidents always have spent political capital pursuing their goals, and Obama has proved the same. As he told volunteers at a health-care rally last month, "The easiest thing to do as a politician is to do nothing."

Before Obama's inauguration, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, set out the administration's goals for the year.

Major reform targets, particularly in the health care and energy sectors, would not be staged one after the other, as in past administrations, but pursued simultaneously at a time when the private sector had been battered by the financial crisis.

Emanuel's logic was a warrior's -- that is, the side with the initiative succeeds. Since then, the administration has pushed through a dozen pieces of legislation with little obvious public resistance, including measures to expand health insurance for children, ensure pay equity, regulate tobacco and protect consumers from credit card companies.

But the strategy will likely cost Obama an energy reform bill this year, as the health-care debate drags on past the provisional deadlines the administration had set.

"From a timing point of view, we just don't know if it's possible," another senior administration official said on condition of anonymity in order to describe an internal assessment.

The breadth of Obama's reform plans, coming after the expensive and interventionist economic rescue measures, is also riling conservatives in places like Lebanon, Pa.

"I don't believe this is just about health care," Katy Abram, a stay-at-home mom, told Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) at a recent town hall forum there. "This is about the systematic dismantling of this country."

As the audience cheered, Abrams, who is 35, continued, "I've never been interested in politics. You have awakened the sleeping giant."

Smaller than it was a decade ago, the Republican Party has shed many moderates, leaving few who are willing to work even with a Democratic president who has promised less partisan governing.

"At the root of his difficulties is a misperception on his part of the root cause of the problem," said Obama critic Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University professor and presidential scholar. "He sees the problem as Washington. Fine. But the basic cause is the evolution of the Republican Party."

Like Lyndon B. Johnson, Obama is pursuing a broad reform agenda with large Democratic majorities in Congress.

But Wilentz said it is harder for Obama to work across party lines without the collection of moderate Republican senators present in Johnson's time. The need for him to do so has been made more urgent by the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and the filibuster-proof majority he represented.

"You can have an out-of-touch Republican Party, but in Washington that does great damage to reform efforts," Wilentz said. "He has done what he can to put the country on a new track, and in doing so he can't help but disappoint some of his supporters. But it's not a fan club."

Extreme Street Theater

At a late August town hall forum in Spring Valley, Calif., Robert Billburg, a 49-year-old Air Force veteran and Red Cross worker, watched a scene familiar to YouTube fans this summer.

Police conducted body searches at the gymnasium door. Signs depicted Obama as the Joker; others called him a Nazi. Liberal demonstrators dressed as cartoon-version fat cats in tuxedos and evening gowns held up signs reading, "Save health care, by a Congressman." The far edges of America's political spectrum were acting out street theater.

"I think the best description of him is a centrist technocrat," Billburg said of Obama, whom he supported. "So those on the extremes are going to be very disappointed."

Increasingly, they are.

During the campaign, Obama pledged to run an administration less concerned by partisanship than by ensuring effective government.

But from his first weeks in office, as his administration worked to secure a stimulus bill the president believed was essential to preventing a broader economic collapse, winning Republican support has been hard. Even the pursuit of it is now viewed by his Democratic base as a sign of weakness.

Only three Republican senators voted for the stimulus measure, written in large part by Congressional leaders but pushed through in the final hours by the White House. One of them -- Specter -- is now a Democrat. Not a single House Republican voted for it.

At the time, several senior administration officials said the amount of Republican support for a White House initiative would no longer be a measure of its success.

Yet Obama has allowed weeks of bipartisan Senate negotiations to take place over health-care legislation, and he has signaled a willingness to abandon a government-run insurance option to secure bipartisan support.

Many of Obama's senior advisers were schooled in Washington politics at least in part on Capitol Hill, including Emanuel, a former House member and pragmatist like the president who thinks allowing Congress to take the lead on legislation is generally the best way to ensure its passage.

But to Democrats like Grayson, who is defending Obama's agenda before sometimes unruly audiences, the president should be more forceful in the face of mounting opposition.

At his recent appearance at the Tiger Bay Club, Grayson told the lunchtime audience of business leaders that "there is a fight in Congress right now, not between Republican and Democrats, but between those who want to help and those who say, 'Thank God we're not helping.' "

Later, in an interview, Grayson said his advice for the president based on his experiences this recess is "to not only combat the lies, but to combat the liars."

"He must recognize that he has reached out his hand to the Republican leadership and they have spat on it," he said.

Holding Onto 'No Drama'

In addressing volunteers from Organizing for America last month, Obama warned those who had been central to the field operation of his grass-roots campaign that "everybody in Washington gets all wee-weed up" in August and September.

It was meant as a warning not to believe the Beltway analysis that Obama, a skilled communicator and player of the long game, was losing control of his message and his broader agenda.

Governing requires the ability to appeal to Congress and the electorate simultaneously, and Obama is attempting to do that with the patience and unflappability that were the hallmarks of his "no drama" campaign.

To Obama and his senior staff, that means ignoring the "cable chatter," the president's catch-all term for media punditry and Hill partisanship, and the Washington ethic of winning in real time.

But a traditionally fractious Democratic Party is also finding that it is easier to remain united against an unpopular Republican administration, as it did during the Bush years, than it is to govern. And Obama stands at its head.

"There is something that has grown into the Democratic DNA over the last 30 years that makes our first reaction fear," said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House deputy communications director. "And we can't keep our fear to ourselves."

Beyond the Beltway, many Democrats say they would be less afraid if Obama appeared less fearful himself, including on issues such as race and the legacy of torture that he has eloquently addressed in the past. In office, Obama has tended to view those subjects largely as distractions from his reform ambitions.

Rickey R. Hendon, a Democratic state senator in Illinois who served with Obama in the legislature there, said the president has always been "conciliatory, a consensus seeker" and that "hasn't changed in Washington, much to his detriment, I believe."

Obama's tentative leadership on race, as the nation's first African American president, has disappointed Hendon, who is also African American.

Even during the controversy over the arrest of the African American Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., which prompted Obama's "beer summit" to smooth hurt feelings, Hendon said the president "did his best to dodge it, to duck and dive."

"He probably does it just to avoid anything that could be racially charged," he said. "I disagree with it, but that's been his mode of operation. Why change now?"

Axelrod said the White House has been receiving advice, much of it unsolicited, to push back harder against the opposition, particularly as the health-care debate heads into the fall legislative session. He said the president intends to do so, but on his own terms.

"He's not going to get punked or pushed around," Axelrod said. "On the other hand, I don't think he's going to fill his day with gratuitous partisan back-and-forth, because it isn't productive and it's not healthy."

Polling director Jon Cohen and staff writers Kari Lydersen, Alec MacGillis, Keith Richburg, Philip Rucker and Karl Vick contributed to this report.

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