It’s all about him…
President Barack Obama had exhausted most of his health care reform arguments with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus during a White House meeting last Thursday when he made a more personal pitch that resonated with many skeptics in the room.
One caucus member told POLITICO that Obama won him over by “essentially [saying] that the fate of his presidency” hinged on this week’s health reform vote in the House. The member, who requested anonymity, likened Obama’s remarks to an earlier meeting with progressives when the president said a victory was necessary to keep him “strong” for the next three years of his term.
Another caucus member, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), said, “We went in there already knowing his presidency would be weakened if this thing went down, but the president clearly reinforced the impression the presidency would be damaged by a loss.”
Added Serrano: “He was subtle, but that was the underlying theme of the meeting — the importance of passing this for the health of the presidency.”
White House officials said Obama’s recent remarks aren’t intended to personalize the debate or rally undecided Democratic members with an egocentric, “win one for Barry” message. They said Obama’s point is to hammer home the idea that all Democrats would benefit from a health care win and that the party’s larger policy agenda would be damaged if the president were to lose.
Still, all told, it’s a little more drama than Democrats are used to getting from Obama. And while it’s not the only argument being made by Obama administration and pro-reform allies on the Hill, it’s an increasingly important one as Democrats seek to sway a handful of health care holdouts ahead of an anticipated vote this weekend.
Moreover, there’s an unmistakable sense that the health care debate is fast moving past a discussion of the bill’s merits, beyond the all-consuming anxieties of incumbents and into an existential battle to preserve Obama’s presidency.
“The White House is raising the stakes so high, they are basically telling [House Democrats] that failure is not an option unless you want to sink the president,” said health industry lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, a onetime adviser to Rep. Dick Gephardt, a former Democratic leader.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of Obama’s closest allies in the health reform push, was more than willing to lay out a post-health-care doomsday scenario for Democrats and Obama should they fail.
“The first risk [of a health care defeat] is that he loses the reelect,” she said. “I think the risk to Congress is that his approval rating goes so low, he does not have enough heft to lift other important things we want to work on. … So this is a gut check. He’s got so much to lose by continuing to push for something that’s not going to be immediately popular. It’s not going to be popular by November; it’s not going to be popular by November of 2012. It’ll be popular 10 years from now.”
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has been telling Democratic fence sitters they are “deluding themselves” if they think Obama’s loss of prestige following a defeat won’t hurt them.
“There are serious implications of losing on President Obama’s ability to be effective for the rest of his three years in office,” Waxman told POLITICO. “That’s a message [undecided members] need to hear. If they don’t think that affects them if they are reelected, they are burying their heads in the sand.”
But many Democrats simply aren’t buying it after months of what they view as Obama’s disengagement from the health care battle.
“We’ve always known he’s a fourth-quarter player, and it’s great to see him on the field,” said an aide to a senior House Democrat. “So why did he sit on the sidelines for the last eight months?”
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), a firm “no” vote, has politely rebuffed feelers from Obama’s staff and rejects the idea that he can’t survive a defeat on health care.
“The White House calls me and says, ‘How are you doing?’” Lynch said. “I say, ‘I’m doing fine, but I’m not voting for this bill.’ … I don’t buy the argument that he’s done if this doesn’t pass. He’s got three more years. He can recover.”
Republicans said that playing the Obama card is an intensely risky proposition, arguing that Democrats on the Hill will resent him even more if he talks them into jumping off a cliff.
“As a legislator, you don’t want to be forced to pick between your constituents and the president — that’s a false choice,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who opposes the reform bill but has been a willing negotiating partner with the administration on other issues.
“Every president does this; Bush did this to me,” Graham added.
“His people said, ‘This president’s credibility is on the line,’ and I said, ‘Well, my judgment’s on the line.’ You try to make people vote your way using whatever tactics you can think of on big issues. … But unlike any other vote I have seen for a very long time, this one will define you; this becomes part of your legacy. You’ll be explaining this vote for a very, very long time — long after President Obama has been marginalized.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, added, “This isn’t about the president; this is about 47 million people who don’t have health insurance. … There’s no argument beyond the moral imperative.”
Still, the idea of Obama in peril seemed to play a part in the no-to-yes flip by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who told reporters Wednesday that his decision was influenced by four conversations with Obama and “a real sense of compassion” for the tough time the president is having pushing the bill through.
Obama hasn’t made himself the central closing argument with the majority of legislators — in part, because most Democrats are already keenly aware of his dilemma. In private talks with lawmakers, he’s largely focused on carefully tailored responses to each legislator’s policy concerns and articulating the moral argument for reform.
Part of his high-road approach is dictated by his personal style, but part is a result of GOP accusations that Democrats engaged in secret sweetheart deals like the “Louisiana Purchase” and the “Cornhusker Kickback.”
“I think the process that the president has been engaged in over the past several months has in many ways been to clean up where that process went wrong at the end of last year,” press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Tuesday.
But that doesn’t mean arms aren’t being twisted. Democratic donors are letting wavering Democratic incumbents know that their wallets will slam shut with a “no” vote. And big unions, like the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and Service Employees International Union, are shelling out $11 million to run ads and inundate battleground districts, letting Democrats know that they have as much to fear from labor as they do from Republicans.
In some cases, labor and associated organizations have taken it one step further — threatening to bankroll primary challengers against conservative Democratic incumbents, including New York Rep. Mike McMahon, a firm “no” vote, and Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln.
“It’s a stupid strategy,” said one conservative Democrat targeted by the unions. “They are hitting me from the left. I couldn’t say yes now if I wanted to. … It would be seen as caving into their pressure.”