This is a critical week for the Obama administration. So much so that President Obama agreed to appear on Fox News, an outlet that has previously been chastised by the administration for its perceived bias in coverage. Obama has also traveled around the country to key districts in attempt to rally public opinion behind his health care proposal. Obama has pigeon-holed himself in some very important ways.
First, he tipped his hand far too early in the health care debate. He stated that his presidency should be judged according to whether or not he is able to achieve comprehensive health care reform. This was a dangerous game because Obama, coincidentally a very adept stud player, “went all-in” on health care before he knew what hand Congress and the public would deal him.
There are two important mistakes made here. First, Obama felt comfortable advancing what is a considerable agenda to Congress because he had a slightly longer than usual honeymoon period (being different from Bush, charismatic, and the first African American all helped), a Democratic Congress, and a relatively comfortable electoral victory. He counted on considerable support from the Democratic Congress, which he has not received. He underestimated the division that exists in the Democratic Party, specifically not recognizing the resilience of the Blue Dog Democrats or the Pro-life Democrats. Obama also seemingly underestimated the extent to which the Republicans would unify as the minority.
Secondly, Obama thought his personal popularity could help him sway legislators falling in the middle to go along with his agenda. But he did this without gauging public support for his health care plan, which has consistently been below 50 percent according to Gallup. The bully pulpit can provide some degree of assistance at the margins, but not if the public is not with the administration.
All of this leaves Obama in a considerably difficult place. The health care plan as originally put forth has been watered-down substantially, so much so that the public option seems far less likely. This alienates not only Blue Dog Democrats and Pro-Life Democrats, who oppose the bill because of the cost and the vague provisions related to abortion, respectively, but also the liberal left who want a robust public option.
So Obama is stuck with something he verbally encouraged his presidency to be judged upon, a plan in which the conservative and liberal wings of his own party are far from thrilled with. A plan that far fewer members of Congress seem passionate about passing than those who are passionate about obstructing.
Dr. Paul E. Rutledge
Professor of Political Science
University of West Georgia