Obama tries to remain calm during political storm

President Obama urged Congress Wednesday to vote "up or down" on sweeping health care legislation in the next few weeks, endorsing a plan that denies Senate Republicans the right to kill the bill by stalling with a filibuster.
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

The president who so famously rejects drama and derides political theater walked into the East Room at 1:45 p.m. during one of the wildest political stretches in recent memory. In the past few days, a White House spokesman was forced to defend Obama's pugnacious chief of staff and his departed social secretary. A Republican senator held a spending bill hostage, despite protests within his own party. A Democrat considered resigning as chairman of a major House committee, then vowed to stay on, then announced he would take a leave of absence.

As this chaos ricocheted through the Capitol, the president entered in a pressed black suit, shoulders straight, eyes calm, voice measured. The chairs inside the East Room were arranged in perfect rows of 10. Doctors wearing long white coats stood with hands clasped behind their backs and flanked Obama onstage.

"At stake right now is not just our ability to solve this problem," he said, "but our ability to solve any problem."

Also at stake now for Obama is his trademark composure, which will be tested like never before during the next two weeks. With governance already seemingly in disarray, Obama announced that he wants Democrats to push through his health-care reform legislation by calling for a simple-majority vote within the next few weeks. It is a process sure to further inflame the capital, and it raises a question central to Obama's presidency: Will his evenness help ease the disorder around him? Or will the rising tension undo his signature bill?

On Wednesday, at least, he seemed to believe that steadiness and cogency still could be effective, despite contrary evidence that continued to mount even as he spoke. The Democratic House leadership tasked with herding the caucus into unity on health-care reform instead became mired in operatic subplots involving ethics investigations, a memorial service and infighting about an empty committee chair. Republicans repeated talking points that simultaneously shot down Obama's health-care plan while still asserting, again and again, that theirs was not "the party of 'no.' "

Obama, meanwhile, kept his speech in the East Room to a simple 15 minutes, and he made clear what he wanted in the first sentence.

"We began our push to reform health insurance last March with the doctors and nurses who know the system best, and so it is fitting to be joined by all of you," he said, "as we bring this journey to a close."

His remarks amounted to an extended exercise in deductive reasoning: We have analyzed health-care reform to death for nine months, he said. Democrats and Republicans both agree the current system does not work. We have to do something. We have tried incorporating Republican ideas. This is what we've got. Pass it.

Obama kept his sentences as basic as his logic, and he accentuated each point by jabbing his left fist in the air. The same president who once frustrated Democratic lawmakers by what they perceived as his hands-off approach instead took to the lectern and made his demands. These were his proposals, he said, and he wanted them passed. Now. Then he cracked a few jokes, mentioned his children and shared an anecdote about a breast cancer survivor in Wisconsin.

"The American people want to know if it's still possible for Washington to look out for their interests and their future," he said. "They are waiting for us to lead. And as long as I hold this office, I intend to provide that leadership."

Question is, can Obama's deliberate style of leadership succeed when all else around him is a jumble of confusion? He will try to reassure Democrats, even as they become increasingly worried about their political futures. He will risk further rankling Republicans, even as their rhetoric about overreaching federal power resonates with a growing percentage of Americans.

To succeed, he will have to participate in the realms of Washington politics that he has so regularly disparaged. The next few weeks will be dominated by what Obama has by turns called "partisan bickering," "political point-scoring," "media speculating" and "legislative gridlock" -- all aspects of political life from which he has worked hard to distance himself. But for at least the next two weeks, he will ignore what is politically popular and instead "do everything in my power to make the case for reform," he said.

The past few days have provided Obama with a preview of the kind of messiness he is likely to encounter as he readies for a final health-care fight. While he traveled to Savannah, Ga., on Tuesday to speak about the economy and remarked -- as he always does -- that it was nice to escape Washington and spend time with regular people, the city that orbits around him continued to prove itself as irregular as ever.

There was Sen. Jim Bunning (Ky.), an outgoing conservative making his stubborn last stand by delaying a $10 billion spending bill for five days. His filibustering resulted in furloughs for federal employees and delayed unemployment benefits for millions of people. Republican colleagues denounced him, and more than 100 protesters gathered to chant and hold signs near his Washington office. Bunning explained his objections loquaciously on the Senate floor but then escaped into a members-only elevator when reporters asked him to comment.

There was Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary, answering a question about Bunning's filibuster by explaining that "as is true in most things in Washington, it's fits and starts; it's one step forward, one step back, or two steps back." Those probably were the same characteristics of Washington, Gibbs confirmed later, that contributed to Obama's above-average cholesterol level and continued nicotine habit, as was revealed after the president's physical exam last weekend.

There was Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), a 79-year-old dressed in a blue bow tie, explaining Wednesday morning in his gravelly voice that he would resign temporarily as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee because of an ongoing ethics investigation. Rangel spent most of his statement explaining that he wouldn't answer questions from the media. Then he lingered at the lectern, waiting for questions and answering a few. Hours later, Democrats protested the appointment of Rangel's expected replacement, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), leaving no clear successor.

There was the Republican National Committee, which created a fundraising memo that depicted Obama as the Joker character from "Batman" and dubbed him part of "The Evil Empire." And then, within less than an hour, there was the requisite response from a Democratic National Committee spokesman, who countered that "the Republican Party has been taken over by the fear-mongering lunatic fringe."

And then, finally on Wednesday afternoon, there was Obama. He finished his remarks in the East Room, waved at the crowd and then pumped his fist emphatically. "Let's get it done," he concluded, as if it would be just that easy.

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