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Obama Lost, Obama Found

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That comprehensive reform is now closer to passage than ever before has fueled a sense of vindication in the White House. “For the first time in 50 years, after five presidents have tried, you have five bills that passed committee, you had the passage in the House, and it’s now moving forward in the Senate,” says Jarrett. “So what the president is doing has worked.”

The view from Capitol Hill is different, and not just from public-option purists. Among some senators and representatives, the obstacles that remain to passing a bill—on abortion, the public option, cost-cutting, and tax-hiking—appear to be growing larger rather than receding. Among others, a sense of guarded optimism remains, if only because the political wreckage that would ensue if the bill collapses would be so cataclysmic. “Every Democrat, from the most liberal to the most conservative, realizes that we have to pass a bill,” argues Senator Chuck Schumer. “Failure is simply not an option.”

Yet the widespread sense among Democrats is that, even if health-care does cross the finish line, it will be a pyrrhic victory, at least in the short term. That Obama and his people badly botched the job of presenting reform to the country and persuading the electorate of its necessity. (According to Quinnipiac, voters disapprove of the president’s handling of the issue by a 53 to 41 percent margin.) That Obama’s above-the-fray posture over the summer allowed the Republicans to define the bill in lasting and lastingly damaging ways. That he wasted precious political capital on an issue that few voters (just 17 percent) consider paramount at this time of economic frailty. And that he allowed the potentially transformative wave that carried him into Washington to slink back into the sea. “We’ll get a health-care bill,” says a Democratic senator. “But we’ve squandered the ability to change America.”

This kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking is par for the course in the Senate, to be sure. But in this case what’s driving it is one brute reality: that any bill that Obama signs into law is likely to be a political loser for Democrats in Congress in 2010 and 2012. Why? Because most of its key elements won’t go into effect until 2013. “It’s not gonna have affected anything a year from now,” says another senator. “Nobody’s premiums will be lower; some people’s will be higher. Nobody who isn’t already covered will be covered yet. That’ll all be in the pipeline, but nobody will have felt it yet.”

For Obama, the problem is less acute than it is for congressional Democrats up for reelection in the coming mid-terms. But a problem it still is—not only for his own reelection effort three years from now, when the effects of reform will still be minimal, but because of the atmosphere the entire health-care endeavor has engendered in his party on the Hill. “The House is angry at the Senate, the Senate thinks the House is crazy, and they’re all pissed at the White House for not exerting adequate leadership over the process and for taking its eye off the ball on the economy,” says the Democratic strategist. “I don’t think the White House understands what’s going on or how bad it is.”

Had Emanuel or Axelrod been present two weeks ago when the members of the House Democratic caucus held their weekly meeting in a windowless room in the Capitol, the picture would have been all too clear. The frustration with Obama’s perceived fecklessness on unemployment was simmering, with open attacks on his economic team and emotional calls for a second stimulus. The next day, Pelosi announced she intended to introduce a jobs bill before year’s end, while across the Hill, Reid signaled his interest in doing the same in early 2010—although congressional aides noted tartly that the White House had “yet to get onboard.”

These rattlings presage the sort of conflict that’s likely to attend the critical, maybe seminal, hundred days that lie ahead for Obama. The White House may or may not climb aboard a jobs bill, but its enthusiasm for the prospect is roughly equivalent to that of a 6-year-old confronted with a plate of cauliflower. Obama and his budget chief, Peter Orszag, have been sending clear signals for weeks that the administration intends to focus in its upcoming budget on fiscal restraint—on at least mapping out the path it will take to wage an assault on Mount Deficit. But congressional liberals have close to zero appetite for such a hike. “If the White House comes out in January all deficit hawkish,” says the strategist, “House and Senate Democrats are going to have an anti-Obama tea party of their own.”


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