In a town where football stereotypes replace rational thought, the clockers and watchers are already calling President Barack Obama’s plans to try and sell his faltering health care reform agenda to a joint session of Congress a "hail mary" pass in the closing seconds of a losing game.
Obama’s record-setting freefall from sky-high public approval ratings to borderline support on his key issues leaves him little choice. Any political capital he had is gone, wiped out by compromise and capitulation.
A new CNN/Opinion Research poll shows a majority of Americans now disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy, health care policy, taxes, the federal deficit and Medicare. His support from independents, the core voter group that put in into office, is down to 43 percent.
Overall, Obama’s approval rating with the American public has dropped 23 percent in eight months — the fastest and most dramatic free fall of any President in modern times.
Even Democrats say Obama and the Democrats squandered their chances. Writing on his blog, Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s labor secretary, says:
What we learned in August is something we’ve long known but keep forgetting: The most important difference between America’s Democratic left and Republican right is that the left has ideas and the right has discipline. Obama and progressive supporters of health care were outmaneuvered in August — not because the right had any better idea for solving the health care mess but because the rights’ attack on the Democrats’ idea was far more disciplined than was the Democrats’ ability to sell it.
I say the Democrats’ "idea" but in fact there was no single idea. Obama never sent any detailed plan to Congress. Meanwhile, congressional Dems were so creative and undisciplined before the August recess they came up with a kaleidoscope of health-care plans. The resulting incoherence served as an open invitation to the Republican right to focus with great precision on convincing the public of their own demonic version of what the Democrats were up to — that it would take away their Medicare, require "death panels," raise their taxes, and lead to a government takeover of medicine, and so on. The Obama White House — a veritable idea factory brimming with ingenuity — thereafter proved unable to come up with a single, convincing narrative to counteract this right-wing hokum. Whatever discipline Obama had mustered during the campaign somehow disappeared.
Obama will try to restore that discipline with his address to the joint session of Congress. It’s a big gamble.
President Obama’s announcement that he will take his case for revamping healthcare before a joint session of Congress next week reflects a decision to go "all in" politically, laying his prestige on the line for the defining domestic issue of his young presidency.
Obama is gambling that he can tilt the balance in his favor by spelling out in detail just what he wants from the House and Senate in the coming weeks.
Until now, Obama has avoided laying out a blueprint for healthcare, confining himself to statements of broad goals and leaving the particulars to Congress. White House officials said Wednesday that this strategy had helped keep the legislative wheels turning and avoid stalemate.
But it also has left many of Obama’s supporters confused about where he stands and has given conservative critics a chance to seize control of the debate, as when some charged that Democrats would create "death panels" to deny medical treatment for the severely ill. Although no such language has ever appeared in legislation being considered in either house, the controversy focused attention on claims that care would be rationed among the elderly in a new healthcare system.
Can he do it? Six months ago, many would have said yes. Now, Washington watchers aren’t so sure. Some say Obama and the Democrats ignroed early warning signs that said the health care plan was in trouble from the beginning.
A group called the Herndon Alliance — a coalition of liberal health-care groups, unions and patient-advocacy groups created in late 2005 — was only a few months into its work planning a health-insurance overhaul by the time it asked focus groups what they thought of the idea of a government-run plan to compete with private ones.
The public-option was an article of faith for many in the alliance, but the focus groups’ reactions were sobering. Skepticism ran high. The chief worry: Giving access to inexpensive government insurance to America’s 46 million uninsured would boost costs, or reduce care, for those who were already insured.
When pollsters told the advocacy groups the public option probably wouldn’t fly, they were told to paper over the problem with a better "message," according to a participant in the project.
"We tried to do our best to come up with some fancy words to help talk about this," this participant said, but in the end, he said, marketers and pollsters involved in the Herndon Alliance may have told their advocacy group clients what they wanted to hear.
Supporters and opponents of health-care reform square off in Kittanning, Pa.
It was an early warning of the trouble that was to engulf President Barack Obama’s most ambitious legislative effort despite years of careful groundwork laid by supporters.