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Is Obama winning?
The president's long-game strategy has confounded a town with a famously short attention span. With Obama doubling down on health reform, our columnist doubles down on Obama.
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum
A

s the dreary winter winds down, the political weather is also changing. On the economy, the green shoots of recovery, seeded more than a year ago, may now have their spring. On health care, the Obama renaissance is real—a historic achievement is within reach. And as these events unfold, the media, in an act of swift revisionism, may conclude that the White House, rather than falling victim to an internal conflict between idealism and pragmatism, has instead married them to advance its ambitious agenda.

First, the economy.

The devoutly conservative Larry Kudlow, of the Reagan administration and CNBC, insisted on Obama’s inauguration day that markets were the most reliable predictors of the future. He was right. With unemployment down from peak levels and job losses ebbing, with housing prices stabilized and other indicators pointing up, the Standard & Poor’s stock index has soared nearly 70 percent since its March 2009 lows—and nearly 40 percent since Obama took office with an economy teetering on the brink of depression.

This remarkable rise anticipates as many as hundreds of thousands of jobs, which forecasters are now predicting not for next year but for this month. During the interregnum between passage of the stimulus bill last year and its impact this year, the president was urged to focus solely on "jobs, jobs, jobs"—as though the mantra itself would create them. But his policies had already averted the depression and begun to reverse the decline. More stimulus would help, and it will come—not in a largely symbolic jobs bill but in the Keynesian deficits of Obama’s new budget. 

Obama refused to play to a public gallery angry at the bailouts that have proved indispensable to saving the financial sector. And he has defied the ill-informed clichés and partisan complaints about deficits. The fiscal outcry will fade as the economy strengthens, and a vindicated president will take the credit—and begin to close the budget gap.

Second, health reform. 

Massachusetts supposedly sounded the death knell for a bill devoid of death panels. Washington wisdom, appearing triumphant, congratulated itself for having predicted that the smears would win in the end. But the president has a longer attention span than the cable networks. Instead, he pushed ahead, and harder, echoing the compelling clarity of his campaign voice in 2008.

Where was this full-throated champion of reform last summer? Tending to legislative strategy—patiently seeding Washington’s parched terrain. Obama had to try working with the GOP to convince enough moderate and Blue Dog Democrats to go along.  Reconciliation, the recondite budget procedure that has become as familiar in this debate as it was frequent under Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes, probably would be impossible without the "wasted" months last summer during which the awkward and earnest Democratic Sen. Max Baucus negotiated with his Republican opposite, the fallow Sen. Charles Grassley. Now Senate Democrats seem all but united in their resolve to use reconciliation. The bluest of Blue Dogs, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, has rebuffed the call of Republicans like Lindsey Graham to join in a bipartisan "gang" pledge to safeguard a right to filibuster. So has Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, who’s unequivocal "this bill is going to pass" should stiffen the spines of fellow moderates.

I doubt that congressional Democrats will heed the solicitous advice of Republicans that the only way to save themselves politically is to forsake health reform. They understand, as the president has argued, that they are far better off with Americans experiencing the bill than fearing it. I’m also convinced that enough members of the Progressive Caucus will consult their consciences—and conclude that health coverage for 30 million more Americans is more urgent than even the best-intentioned demand for all or nothing. (If the GOP and the insurance industry so bitterly oppose the bill, then it must be worth passing.)

Obama’s strategy, partly shaped by events, also reflects the combination of qualities that brought him to the Oval Office—and makes it more than likely that he will reach the goal that has eluded the nation since Theodore Roosevelt first proposed national health care in 1912. Obama has been "a steel fist in a velvet glove"—Carl Standburg’s description of Lincoln. The president who doesn’t panic, didn’t.

Third, the White House intrigues.

This story has been so arresting because it’s so uncharacteristic of the Obama operation. It started with a Washington Post column followed by a Page 1 article explaining how the president had been wisely warned by his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to choose bite-size rather than comprehensive health reform, to put off the closure of Guantánamo and to forego big change in favor of incrementalism. The story line migrated from the Post to The New York Times, which featured its own Page 1 portrayal of Obama’s friend and chief strategist David Axelrod as a naïf. 

At a decisive moment in the health debate, the press suddenly pictured a White House fractured, with Emanuel pragmatically doubting the president’s health proposal and Axelrod gullibly, idealistically promoting it.

I’ve known Axelrod for more than two decades. He’s smart, principled, and tough.  His anonymous critics have never come close to pulling off anything like the hard-nosed game changer he coached in 2008. I suspect the attacks on him only reinforce the president’s appreciation for Axelrod’s loyalty and candor—along with Obama’s own determination not to surrender progress to the Washington quagmire.

And here’s something I don’t know—where this premeditated spate of spin originated. Emanuel is very smart, too, and a paladin of inside maneuver. The transparently self-serving portrait of him as the level-minded presence in a Panglossian White House is so potentially self-destructive that you have to suspect—and someone in the administration suggested this to me—that the story may have come from "sources" out to hurt him or to derail the health bill. 

But what’s in today’s papers is not the president’s focus. Obama takes the long view and plays a long game—just as he and Axelrod did in the campaign. Against the odds, the president and his "idealist" may actually break the chokehold of the conventional and petty Washington doctrine that less is more and political cowardice is the better part of wisdom. And if this president succeeds on health reform as well as on the economy, he will be empowered to advance the rest of an agenda that ranges from financial reform to the prodigious task of tackling climate change (even in an atmosphere of denial). He will begin to heal the shattered faith in government, opening the way to a new progressive era. 

The first electoral verdict will come in the voting booths of 2010. Despite the dire predictions, the Obama comeback could be cemented as early as November. Assuming those jobs materialize, Democrats could minimize their losses and hold both Houses of Congress.

By 2012, with a full-blown recovery and wide ranging change achieved, it may well be morning in Obama’s America. And the Republicans, desperate to explain away prosperity, or still fulminating against socialism, will once again descend ungently into that good night.

There is something about them that seems comfortable with the darkness.

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