For Obama, signing health-care amendments is another big, um, fat deal

Jane Dimyan-Ehrenfeld hands her daughter Veronique Laura Dimyan, 1, to President Obama at NoVa.
Jane Dimyan-Ehrenfeld hands her daughter Veronique Laura Dimyan, 1, to President Obama at NoVa. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Had Joe Biden been there, he no doubt would have regarded it as another big (expletive) deal.

But the vice president was not in the hall on Tuesday for President Obama's signing of the second piece of health-care legislation in two weeks, an absence that may have had something to do with the Rahmian signing statement that Biden issued at last week's ceremony, and that was picked up by the microphones.

This time, a more discreet Biden -- his wife, Jill -- was asked to introduce the president. Obama thanked her -- "for putting up with Joe."

Even without the VP there to say so, what happened at Northern Virginia Community College on Tuesday morning was still a fairly big deal.

This wasn't so much because of the bill Obama signed -- a package of amendments to the health-care legislation and changes to the student loan program -- but because it was a chance for the president, just back from the political dead, to test some themes for this fall's midterm campaigns.

"This day affirms our ability to overcome the challenges of our politics and meet the challenges of our time," Obama, in triumphant mode, told the NoVa audience. "When I took office, one of the questions we needed to answer was whether it was still possible to make government responsive to the needs of everyday people . . . or whether the special interests and their lobbyists would continue to hold sway." Obama, on the basis of "two major victories in one week," felt confident enough to claim success.

The president's celebration may be premature. A USA Today/Gallup poll out Tuesday found that nearly two-thirds of Americans think the health-care law costs too much and expands the government's role too much. Although other polls have shown a jump in Obama's popularity, Gallup found that Obama's disapproval rating climbed to 50 percent for the first time.

But there is no doubt that the conventional wisdom in the capital has done a 180 in recent days. Had Obama failed on health-care reform, the end of his presidency would have been proclaimed. Instead, he has been restored as ruler of all he surveys, and he's acting as such.

Over the weekend, he dashed off to Afghanistan for an unscheduled visit; on his return, he lectured Hamid Karzai, suggesting on the "Today" show that the Afghan president heed "the fierce urgency of now" -- a Martin Luther King Jr. phrase adopted by Obama's presidential campaign. At home, Obama has taken on an increasingly confident tone, telling those who would repeal the health-care law to "go for it," the way George W. Bush said of Iraqi insurgents: "Bring 'em on."

Obama's approval rating at NoVa on Tuesday was undoubtedly higher than it was in the Gallup poll. In the front row was his new ally Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), a far-left congressman who was posing for pictures with admirers. About two dozen lawmakers, including Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), filled the first two rows. The students, nearly equaled in number by congressional staffers and interest group activists, gave House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a thunderous ovation when she took the stage. The crowd even applauded the man who came out to make sure the teleprompter was working.

When Obama emerged, the screams were like those at a rock concert. He gave a hug and kiss to Pelosi, whose purple pantsuit matched Obama's tie.

"Fired up!" a man bellowed from the back. One woman made a barking noise. Even the members of the brass quintet, which had been playing patriotic tunes, put their instruments in their laps for Obama's speech and joined the applause.

The president spared few words for the health-care component of the bill, devoting more than 10 times as much to an add-on provision: the student loan change that is supposed to save billions by cutting out banks as the middlemen.

Obama portrayed the change as the culmination of an epic struggle, "for almost two decades" and against an "army" of lobbyists. "I didn't stand with the banks and the financial industries in this fight," he said, auditioning the populist message that he and Democrats hope to take to voters in November. "Neither did any of the members of Congress who are here today. We stood with you."

What emerged on Tuesday was a single, coherent theme: on health-care reform, on student loans and (soon) on financial regulations, Democrats fought off the moneyed interests in defense of the little guy.

"From the moment I was sworn into office, I've spoken about the urgent need for us to lay a new foundation for our economy and for our future," Obama said. Now, "we can rightly say the foundation on which America's future will be built is stronger than it was one year ago."

He sat down to sign the bill, joking about the number of pens awaiting him. He used 17 as souvenirs to sign this time, compared with last week's 22. By that measure, the new law is precisely 23 percent less important than last week's -- but, in the grand scheme of things, still a pretty big (expletive) deal.

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