Analysis: Obama marks win, but challenges mount

The U.S. House narrowly passed landmark health care legislation Saturday night to expand coverage to tens of millions who lack it and place tough new restrictions on the insurance industry. The vote was 220-215.
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 9, 2009

President Obama retreated briefly to the serenity of Camp David this weekend, leaving behind seven days that showcased both the promise and the limits of his presidency.

The respite lasted fewer than 24 hours, and his return to the White House was marked by a victory for the ambitious agenda he has embraced. His allies in Congress had secured -- if only by a hair -- a historic milestone on the march toward comprehensive health-care reform.

"Moments like this are why they sent us here," Obama said, back in the Rose Garden Sunday afternoon. "To finally meet the challenges that Washington has put off for decades."

A year after his election, the health-care vote in the House was a reminder of the power that he still wields to shape the country's future, cajoling change that he promised as a candidate over the objections of a nearly unified GOP and a sharply divided party of his own.

But the victory came on the heels of sobering evidence that even a president as popular as he remains is subject to the shifting public mood, an economy struggling to recover and events that are beyond his direct control.

Obama clearly recognizes the constraints on his actions -- the narrow range of choices in Afghanistan, the shrunken group of political moderates that might have accelerated his agenda, the decades of policy prescriptions that would take years to unravel.

The president has hardly shied away from confronting those challenges. But the almost naively hopeful "Yes, we can!" spirit of his campaign is harder to see with the more realistic Barack Obama in the White House.

"Given the heated and often misleading rhetoric surrounding this legislation, I know that this was a courageous vote for many members of Congress," Obama said Sunday, a nod to the 39 Democrats who voted against him. "Now it falls on the United States Senate to take the baton and bring this effort to the finish line."

If he needed any reminder of how difficult that remains, the week began with a blunt message for his party from voters, who resoundingly rejected two Democratic candidates for governor and sent a shock through members of Congress who are up for reelection next year.

Senior Obama aides sought to minimize the power of that message but were largely out-shouted by a chorus of pundits and even some Democrats on Capitol Hill who warned that the results do not portend good things for Obama and his party next year.

The problem, noted Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W. Va.), an Obama ally, is people's sense that the president's agenda is not connecting with people's "anxiety" about the economy.

That anxiety was not eased on Friday, with news that the unemployment rate had increased to 10.2 percent last month, the highest rate since the early 1980s. That had been forecast by Obama's advisers but was a reminder of how far off they were in their early predictions about the impact of the stimulus bill passed earlier this year.

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