The Sunday Take

The Take: Obama Must Look Beyond His Party, Reclaim Independents

By Dan Balz
Sunday, September 13, 2009

The most immediate task at hand for President Obama in his drive to win enactment of health-care legislation is to bring together members of his party behind a single piece of legislation. That is the first step toward a more important political objective, which is to rebuild his and the Democrats' support among independent voters.

The reality of the health-care debate is that bipartisanship is a fleeting hope. The president used parts of his speech to a joint session of Congress last week to reach out to Republicans -- singling out John McCain, Orrin Hatch and Charles Grassley by name and announcing his willingness to explore, modestly, tort reform that Republicans favor.

But the speech was every bit as much an in-your-face rebuttal to conservative and Republican critiques of the legislation that has emerged from congressional committees. The response in the chamber, exemplified in the extreme by Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst, showed what the overwhelming majority of Republicans think about Obama's proposals.

A few Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee remain engaged in negotiations with committee Chairman Max Baucus. Whether they will ultimately vote for a bill capable of winning broad Democratic support in the House as well as in the Senate remains a dubious proposition. That leaves it to Obama to unite Democrats to achieve his No. 1 domestic priority. To do that, he is destined to disappoint many in his own party, particularly in the House.

Obama's address was a split-screen appeal that highlighted the challenge he faces. The rhetorical power was designed to reassure the progressive activists so important to the success of his campaign that he has not lost the fire they exhibited throughout the 2008 election. That was what was behind the tough talk, the denunciations of the false or misleading claims that have been made about the legislation.

The substance was pitched much more toward the center of the electorate, toward the independents who had soured on George W. Bush and were looking for a change in 2008, but who may be worried that the scope of what Obama has proposed is more than they bargained for. Even a superficial reading of the president's message suggests he is prepared to sell off many of the key elements of the House-shaped legislation.

White House officials are somewhat baffled by House Democrats continuing to push for legislation that includes a robust public insurance option when it's clear the Senate will not embrace such a provision. In their view, the public option was never debated in the campaign, was never the center of a national debate and appears to lack the votes regardless of what public opinion polls show about its popularity.

The public option is not the only aspect of the House legislation that Obama seems unwilling to embrace. The cost-containment measures fall short of what he has insisted must be part of an acceptable bill. His team has consistently warned that the House must do more to assure that health-care reform does not increase the deficit and he now made that explicit.

Similarly, he gave a nod to the financing mechanism contained in the Senate Finance Committee's draft, which is a tax or fee on insurance companies that offer gold-plated insurance plans. He appears to have given up on his proposal to limit the value of charitable contributions and on the surtax on wealthy Americans envisioned by some House Democrats, unless it hits only the very wealthiest of taxpayers.

Many Democrats will protest that Obama is ceding too much ground to a minority of his own party -- to the Blue Dogs in the House and the moderate, Red State Democrats in the Senate. Since when are they the center of gravity in the party? If Democrats are going to have to do this on their own, should they not expect legislation that more clearly reflects majority sentiment in their own party?

Given the polarized debate over health care, that is an understandable reaction and one shared by many of the Democrats' most energetic activists. But Obama still seems to have his eyes fixed more on the center of the electorate than on the party's base, and for good reason.

Democrats were handed the White House and their majorities in Congress by an electorate that had soured on Bush and the Republicans. Their first responsibility is to demonstrate an ability to govern, which is why the failure-is-not-an-option mantra has been repeated so often during the sometimes frustrating negotiations over health care. That is still the reason White House officials express optimism that Obama will sign a health-care bill this year.

But their second responsibility is to take seriously the concerns expressed by many of those who voted for Obama, but who now have doubts about his very ambitious agenda and its implications for the deficit and for the role of government in their lives. For many of these voters, the concern has become "too much, too fast."

Obama has defended what he has done with respect to the economy, financial institutions and the auto industry as the equivalent of wars of necessity. But health care and climate change were fights he has chosen to start, and they have given pause to many voters who may be sympathetic to Obama.

The president is not willing to postpone ambitious health-care reform, fearing that indefinite delay will mean permanent defeat. But in the message he has delivered in the past week, he seems aware he must address the concerns about his presidency that have caused his approval ratings to slip.

In almost any form, Obama's health-care plan will be attacked by Republicans. In this environment, Democrats want to see a fighting Obama, and there have been flashes of that style as Congress returned from its August break. But he must not just rally the Democrats. He must prod and nudge and push them toward agreement on legislation that, over time, wins acceptance and approval of independents still nervous about his presidency.

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