Saturday, February 27, 2010

Unfinished Business: Why the President Just Can't Get Away from Health Care, Holding Steady Near the Zero Line, How Much Trouble is the President In?

On the Summit and the Health Care Issue
Seems like years ago that we heard about how President Obama was going to aggressively pivot away from health care and on to economic issues and jobs. It was only a few weeks ago and the President made it pretty clear in his State of the Union speech that jobs were priority one. He didn't even mention health care until the second half of his speech. Even liberals in congress were talking about taking a break from the issue that has consumed all of their political capital since the stimulus bill passed early last year.

Yet, here we were last week, with a much anticipated, televised discussion of health care between the President and Congress. It went pretty much to script. Both sides were (relatively) cordial, but the battle lines are clear. Democrats want comprehensive reform this year. Republicans want an incrementalist approach, consisting mostly of things that have to do with cost containment (tort reform, purchase of insurance across state lines) and little to do with expanding access. Simply put, there is a seemingly unfixable ideological divide between the GOP and the President on this issue. But then, we already knew that.

The summit strikes me, while fascinating political theater, as largely cover to start the reconciliation process. No one had any real expectation of a deal, both sides were too dug in. This allows the President to say, "look, see, I tried to work with the GOP, but they wouldn't play ball, so I took action anyway." House and Senate Democratic leaders have already been talking about how to make the reconciliation process work.

In many ways, the Democrats are in far worse shape on this issue than if they had simply decided to go at it alone from the get go. What bill is going to get a majority of votes coming solely from a scared-shitless Democratic caucus is unclear. There are all the issues that had to be navigated when the first bill passed, the Blue Dogs, the anti-abortion Democrats and the liberals who want a bigger bill. Pile on top of that Democrats that are now highly fearful of losing in November and it's hard to hold onto what was only a 4 vote majority for a bill last year.

So, the Democrats still have a tough road to parity unity on this issue, even if they are ditching hopes of a compromise with the GOP. So, the question remains, why does the Democratic party remain so focused on this issue that for the most part has brought them nothing but pain over the course of the past year?

Because they must. It would be the ultimate sign of failure and dysfunction in the Democratic party to fail to do ANYTHING with control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency on the signature issue that the President laid out last year. You could certainly argue in retrospect that this was the wrong issue to pick in a time of painful unemployment, a damaged financial system and two active wars still underway, but it's an academic question at this point -- the DEMs are committed. If they get a bill, they may well lose a lot of seats in Congress. But if they fail, then they have given the American public NO reason to vote for them and will likely get run out of town from the right AND the left.

So, they trudge on. Prepare for the partisanship in Washington to get even worse as the Democrats plot to cut out the power of the filibuster and ram a bill through with Dems only. But let's not forget, that's how President Bush's signature tax cuts became law.

Not Much New in the Polls
President Obama's approval remains about where it has been all month, with a narrow plurality of people approving of his job performance. He will once again post a decline in his numbers in February, continuing a long downward slide from the highs when he took office.

What to Do to Fix the Obama Administration
It's time to talk seriously...President Obama is in trouble. Sure, he still has slightly more people that approve of his performance than disapprove. Sure, President Clinton had a rough first year, then pivoted to the center mid-way through his term and won in a relative blow-out in 1996. Sure, President Reagan looked to be in big trouble after year 1, then saw the economy boom and won in one of the biggest landslides of the modern era in 1984.

And yes, the President may benefit from a better economy by 2012. But he would be foolish to assume that this will be his sole path to re-election. The President needs to take corrective action, as President Clinton did. Here's some starting points.

#1 Admit There is a Problem
Everybody already knows that your administration isn't getting things done the way many had hoped. You haven't communicated well to Congress. Several of your cabinet secretaries, including Ray Lahood, Eric Holder and Janet Napolitano have had high-prfoile slip-ups of either form or substance. The stimulus didn't keep unemployment under 8%, a claim that you never should have made.

So, let's loose the smug coolness and show a little contrition and vulnerability. Yes, we've made mistakes, but we're committed to doing right by the American people, you should say.

#2 Make Some Changes to Show You Are Serious
Obama is a loyal guy and he actually reminds me of former President George W. Bush in that he seems very hesitant to cut a man (or woman) loose, even when it is clear to others that (s)he isn't cutting it. Your team needs a shake-up. I might start with Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs. Get some better communicators in there.

Then, take a close look at the rest of your cabinet and decide who is helping. Arne Duncan is a keeper. So is Hillary. Tim Geithner? I'm not so sure.

I'm not saying throw anybody under the bus, but you need to get the best people if you are going to survive.

#3 Take on Your Own Party on Some Symbolic Issues
Have a photo op with the GOP backing school vouchers and push for a bill. Endorse a GOP plan for a revenue-neutral gas tax increase. Show that you are not the puppet of Pelosi and Reid.

#4 Be Bold on Your Issues
Issue that executive order on Gays in the Military TODAY. Make a moral issue out of eliminating too big to fail.

#5 Advertise Better
Do you know how much better things are going on the ground in Afghanistan? Nobody does. Because the President isn't talking about it.

Scott Brown -- Not a Tea Bagger
Newly minted Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) showed his real commitment to independence and bi-partisanship by crossing the party line to vote for a $15 billion package of tax cuts aimed at small businesses that hire unemployed workers. The entire process for the bill was an exercise in all that is broken with Washington, with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) undercutting a bi-partisan effort on a jobs bill by introducing his own package and then the GOP largely voting in lock-step against an idea that they had previously endorsed. Brown walked the line by rightly criticizing the process while refusing to vote against a bill that contained ideas that he supported. Good for him. And more evidence that he is the product of moderate Independent anger, not some Glenn Beck inspired movement.

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