Just back from a recent day trip to Georgia, President Barack Obama walked into the Oval Office and told his senior staff to get a grip.
“We all rise and fall together,” he declared that afternoon, as Washington neared fever pitch over tensions on his team. Keep your eyes on the prize, Obama directed, not on the daily ups and downs.
It was classic Obama, again summoning one of his favorite tenets in a crisis: the Long View.
It’s a high-minded notion that elected leaders love to invoke, both privately and publicly. It makes politicians seem above the dirtiest aspects of campaigning and governing.
They rarely adhere to it. With all of the House and a third of the Senate going before the voters every two years, and a media environment that moves by the minute, the long view can get pretty short. Scoring a point — now — can itself feel like a do-or-die achievement in the long slog to pass prized legislation or survive re-election.
But for Obama, it’s been a crucial prescription he reaches for when times get tough, whether during his come-from-behind White House bid, the recent imbroglio over chief of staff Rahm Emanuel or policy setbacks in his often embattled presidency. Now, with the fate of his health care overhaul likely to be known by the end of this week or soon after, the outcome — either way — will test his loyalty to the long view as much as anything that has come before.
To be sure, Obama is not above short-term gain: Look at those deals for certain states he allowed into the health care bill to attract specific lawmakers, provisions he now wants to cut because of their distastefulness to the public. And he’s not shy about political points, as seen in his attacks on the insurance industry or barbs thrown at Republicans.
Still, for the most part he’s refused to get mired in and panicked by the inevitable low points in politics. That set Obama apart during the campaign and helped him succeed.
If the health care plan fails, Obama will face intense criticism for gambling his presidency on an overly ambitious, ultimately doomed effort. The current finger-pointing about who’s at fault, with a Democratic Congress no less, would get more intense. Obama’s political capital would be near zero, at least for a time, leaving him little ability to get anything else done and almost no chance of cooperation from Republicans as they smell weakness after a victory over a popular president.
Even if the health care bill succeeds, there are potential pitfalls. No doubt Obama would feel vindicated, and the achievement would be historic. But the GOP has pledged that approval of a health care overhaul over unified Republican objections would damage any chances for bipartisanship on other issues. Republicans hope Democrats will face fierce voter punishment in this fall’s midterm elections.
And if Obama presides over major losses for his party in the elections, he’ll be at another defining, perhaps devastating crossroads.
A look at Obama’s past indicates how he might tackle such moments.
He is not inclined to believe the game is up — whether it’s his own White House chances or the health initiative — even when it looks that way. His confidence, ambition and even temperament don’t allow him to assume his goals are out of reach.
It’s a valuable approach, for it breeds persistence. It’s also risky, because focusing on the big picture can lead to tactical errors.
Most recently, many observers expected heads to roll when it appeared Emanuel was putting out word that the Obama presidency was stalled because Obama hadn’t followed his advice enough. It was embarrassing, complete with whispers about who was saying what and how angry Obama must have been.
But if Obama was upset, no one was saying. Instead, at Obama’s direction, White House aides said with convincing certainty that Emanuel’s job was not in jeopardy — either over the stories or the president’s larger troubles — and neither was anyone else’s.
The White House team dug in. They bet the fuss would exhaust itself eventually, which it has.
Obama got himself in deep in the spring of 2008 when provocative comments by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, further roiled what was already a grinding primary season. Obama took almost too long to settle the situation with a highly regarded speech about race. Then Wright resurfaced and Obama lost ground again.
With each such misfortune, Obama rolls out a familiar pep talk. “If you allow the inside baseball of Washington to distract you, then you’re not focusing on the goal,” Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to Obama in the White House and a longtime friend, recounted in an interview. “He has no patience for gossip. He has no patience for drama.”
If health care fails, or the elections go badly, most people will expect changes in his operation. And there may well be, around the edges.
But there’s little chance the changes would amount to a wholesale shake-up, aides say. Obama set up his team the way he wanted it, with balanced skill sets, and that team is pursuing an agenda set by him.
Lately, the president has taken to refocusing his staff by pulling out one of the 10 letters from citizens that he reads each day. Jarrett recalls a recent Air Force One flight during which aides were busily dissecting the day’s developments and “focused on the sausage-making.” The president walked in, listened briefly, and then interjected to read one letter in its entirety.
“What’s in today’s papers is not the president’s focus,” longtime Democratic consultant Bob Shrum wrote in The Week magazine. “Obama takes the long view and plays a long game.”
So White House advisers already are thinking about how they could recover from a health care failure, with an emerging plan that is typically optimistic. Their thinking:
_Obama would suffer a bad period but get credit, particularly from Democrats, for giving health care one last, aggressive chance. By November, voters might be upset that nothing changed and blame Republicans, not Obama. In this scenario, it would have been worse if Obama had let health care “wither on the vine” instead of giving it an all-out effort.
_While unemployment will remain near 10 percent into next year, the economic mood of the country — perhaps the biggest driver for voters — should begin improving as job-creation numbers tick up.
_Obama will continue to talk about his other big agenda items, like climate change legislation and an immigration overhaul, despite their long, perhaps impossible odds. But he’ll focus primarily on populist issues like enacting tougher financial industry regulations and mitigating a recent Supreme Court ruling that allows unions and corporations to funnel unlimited dollars to political campaigns.
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