The Rose Garden: Allies Pore Over Mistakes in Health Debate

Posted January 22, 2010 at 6:09pm

President Barack Obama could be excused for feeling a little bewildered. After taking office a year ago amid euphoric acclaim, the president’s approval ratings are naggingly stuck just under 50 percent.

[IMGCAP(1)]His political magic touch seems to have disappeared. He campaigned for gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey and a Senate candidate in Massachusetts. All lost. He campaigned vigorously for health care reform during the summer but failed to stir enthusiasm for the bill. The legislation never achieved widespread popularity and now sits in limbo.

Republicans say Obama’s problem is that his polices are too far to the left and unpopular. Democrats say that the president is trying to implement policies on which he was resoundingly elected.

But Democratic strategists note that whatever the popularity or merit of the policies, the White House has made several strategic errors that have helped bring Obama to this moment of grief.

Some admit their analyses have the wisdom of twenty-twenty hindsight and say the White House isn’t really guilty of political malpractice.

But several choices made by the White House helped land the president in his current fix.

And his difficulty centers mainly on health care, which has absorbed Obama and the public for the better part of his presidency.

The president is not facing an irretrievable mess. Some version of his health care reform may still pass, despite the loss of the filibuster-proof Senate majority with the GOP pickup of the Massachusetts seat last week. And Obama’s approval ratings aren’t anywhere near the abyss reached by either Presidents Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, each of whom dipped into the 30s before marching on to convincing re-elections.

But the politician who took office just more than a year ago is barely recognizable.

The health care bill was a race against time — and time won. Many believe the White House played footsie for far too long with Republicans over the Senate health care bill.

There was a rationale to the effort — Obama was trying to fulfill a campaign promise to be bipartisan while giving the GOP some buy-in to whatever criticism the bill might incur.

But some Democrats believe Republicans had already made it clear that they were not willing to cooperate. At most, Obama was never going to get more than one or two GOP Senators to sign on, hardly a bipartisan mandate.

“The main thing he should have done is figure out a hard deadline on health care and then enforced it,— said one veteran Democratic strategist. “Whenever Congress was going to leave on some break like Thanksgiving, he should have pushed to get it done and not taken ‘no’ for an answer.—

This source added that Obama should have sent a detailed proposal early in the year to Congress that clearly laid out the acceptable parameters of the bill, giving lawmakers less room to plot their own course and make the process cumbersome.

White House officials were trying to avoid the “mistake— made by Clinton and then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led the Clinton health care campaign, of writing legislation in the White House and having it become a target for opponents.

But they may have learned more by paying attention to the Clinton mistake of taking too long to move. Clinton’s health care plan was not even introduced until November of his first year in office, by which time opponents had already begun the “Harry and Louise— ads that helped sink it. The bill’s final defeat didn’t come until 10 months later.

Instead, the better template might have been that of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who drove Congress to approve most of the New Deal in his first 100 days — some believe, before lawmakers even knew what hit them.

Democrats express satisfaction with Obama’s willingness to engage directly with lawmakers in an intensive manner earlier this month to drive the health care bill toward near-completion. Though the White House says Obama has been involved all along — citing phone calls and meetings with wavering lawmakers — some Democrats wish he had rolled up his sleeves and gotten to the negotiating table earlier while being less subtle about what he would support.

“Some people believe he should have been involved earlier in a hands-on way,— lamented one senior House Democratic aide.

This source added that Members and the public have found the bill too complicated to digest and that Obama might have done a better job explaining it.

Obama seemed to be acknowledging this in remarks Friday in Elyria, Ohio.

“It’s very — it’s actually very simple,— Obama said as he began to concisely summarize the health care bill. “There are a bunch of provisions in it, but it’s pretty simple.—

And the White House, as Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has acknowledged, shares the blame for the Democratic debacle in Massachusetts.

“Everybody wants to blame everybody, but Obama is head of the party, and he should have had the lights on to see what was going on in Massachusetts,— said the veteran Democratic strategist.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.