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Is Barack Obama Really Mad at the People Pushing His Agenda?

PH2009070200621.jpgCeci Connolly had a nice piece over the weekend reporting on a conference call Barack Obama held with congressional Democrats to plot strategy for health-care reform. But Obama's audience, it seems, wasn't the congressional Democrats who were actually on the phone. It was the liberal advocacy groups that were going to read reports of the call. And Obama had a pretty simple message: Step. Off.

In a pre-holiday call with half a dozen top House and Senate Democrats, Obama expressed his concern over advertisements and online campaigns targeting moderate Democrats, whom they criticize for not being fully devoted to "true" health-care reform.

"We shouldn't be focusing resources on each other," Obama opined in the call, according to three sources who participated in or listened to the conversation. "We ought to be focused on winning this debate."

Specifically, Obama said he is hoping left-leaning organizations that worked on his behalf in the presidential campaign will now rally support for "advancing legislation" that fulfills his goal of expanding coverage, controlling rising costs and modernizing the health system.

This is, on a couple of levels, a very weird call. If Barack Obama wants to to pack it up, he'll have a staffer reach out to the organization's leadership directly. He won't conduct an ostensibly private conversation with congressional Democrats in the hopes that it gets leaked to the media with the message and the emphasis that he intends.

That, however, appears to be what he's done. Which suggests that there's a bit of theater going on here. It looks like Obama is semi-publicly defending the congressional Democrats whose votes he'll eventually need. That's probably a good strategy for him. But that's different from seriously putting the screws on, say, the unions attacking those restive centrists. If he were doing that, those attacks would quietly disappear, and we'd never know why. This, by contrast, seems a bit like one of those Captain Morgan ads where they loudly and publicly advise you to "drink responsibly" while still, you know, selling alcohol in large quantities.

Which makes sense. Obama apparently spoke of "advancing legislation." But what legislation? The House legislation, with the strong public plan? The HELP legislation, with the weak public plan? The Finance legislation, which is likely to embrace some version of the co-op compromise? Advocacy groups on the left and the right are currently trying to make sure that question gets answered in accordance with their preferences. So, to some extent, is Barack Obama. And indications are that his preferences are more closely aligned with those of liberal advocacy groups than centrist Democrats. But unlike liberal advocacy groups, Obama needs Sen. Kay Hagan to continue to like him. The best outcome for him, in fact, is that the liberal advocacy groups succeed in uniting congressional Democrats around Obama's health-reform preferences but appear to be doing so over his objections.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 6, 2009; 10:31 AM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Oh jeez, STILL going on with the ridiculous 11-dimensional chess excuses for Obama. Get a clue. Obama is precisely the wishy-washy centrist that he appears to be.

Posted by: labonnes | July 6, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

I just don't get what O's objectives on health care really are. Any bill at all (so he can say we did it)?

The meme is growing that Obama is not just a captive of the special interests, he's their active partner (Can you say Goldman Sachs?). I don't get his legislative strategy: it appears that that is based on no-pressure on the weakest willed in the Congress as his benchmark of ally.

I haven't gotten off the train, yet. But I'm looking at the route map to check upcoming stations because the destination doesn't seem where I want to go anymore.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | July 6, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

"Any bill at all (so he can say we did it)?"

Yes. So you see, you really do understand!

Posted by: labonnes | July 6, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Did you actually read that mindless babble from the urban institute? Why can't you think this one through? Sorry to sound like Krugman but you're almost too old to be this foolish.

Posted by: fallsmeadjc | July 6, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Most other summaries of that phone call suggested that his emphasis was for each chamber to get any bill they can through as quickly as possible.

Yes, even a watered down bill is something to campaign on. But bills can also be changed in conference (like the Republicans did with Part D) or in their actual implementation. Obama controls the bureaucracy that will be implementing these reforms. Long term the subsidy limit can be adjusted from 300% to 400%, so if that's what it takes for Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to call themselves centrist, then so be it. I think the key is to focus on certain "now-or-never" policies: MedPac, the public option, things that can't be added/subtracted later.

Posted by: CarlosXL | July 6, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Obama: "We ought to be focused on winning this debate."

BigTunaTim: "Then why do you give so much away before it's even begun?"

Obama: "My bad. But how much can you expect with Harry Reid as my pit bull?"

BigTunaTim: "Touché. Still, read up on the Overton Window ASAP."

Posted by: BigTunaTim | July 6, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Ceci Connolly isn't going away. This is going to be a big headache for Ezra.

Posted by: chrismealy | July 6, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

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