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Waiting for Barack

obamaball.JPGEvery Hill office I've spoken to in the past week has had the same complaint. "Where," they ask, "is the White House?"

There's been no clear message on the way forward for health-care reform. No clear articulation of preferences. No public leadership to speak of. The administration is taking temperatures rather than twisting arms. The White House press team is blasting out speeches where the president says he'll never stop fighting on health care but pointedly refuses to throw a punch. The president is giving interviews where he seems to endorse paring the bill back and also seems to argue against doing anything of the kind. The daily message has run from banks to freezes, and early leaks suggest that tonight's speech will focus on education.

According to multiple sources, there's an easy answer for the confusion: The White House is confused. Some in the president's inner circle, including Rahm Emanuel, want the bill pared back. Something is better than nothing, they say, and if Congress doesn't have the votes for the full bill, the White House can't be left fighting a losing battle. Others argue that the White House's refusal to lead is a self-fulfilling prophecy, killing a bill that's comprehensive enough to work and close enough to pass while pinning hopes to an unknown compromise bill that probably won't work and almost certainly won't get the liberal Democrats or moderate Republicans necessary for passage.

The wild card in all of this is Obama himself. And the hope of many reformers is that the White House will play that card in tonight's State of the Union. But as of last night, the language of the speech wasn't finished, and no one seemed certain of where the president would finally come down.

Depending on what they think will happen, observers bring up two well-worn narratives from the campaign. The first is Obama's tendency to patiently let the fury of the news cycle abate before attempting to change its direction. You saw this in the months before Iowa, they say, where a listless campaign recaptured its spark with Obama's tremendous speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. You saw it in the Summer of 2008, when John McCain and Sarah Palin seemed to be surging, and Obama was holding his money and negative firepower in reserve. You saw it in August, when Obama let the townhalls play out and Congress return to session before giving his first national address on health care.

Pessimists, however, point to a very different narrative. Obama, they say, has not shown himself a fighter for his policy commitments. His time as a national figure was short, adulatory and unmarred by hard causes or lonely battles. During the primary campaign, he was battered by John Edwards and Hillary Clinton on social policy, surviving mainly on the strength of his personal narrative and his opposition to the war in Iraq. His strategy on health care was to compromise with industry, compromise with Congress, and seek the path of maximal consensus, which has resulted in an ugly bill that doesn't excite supporters and doesn't comfort voters. This is all, they say, part of a pattern of conflict-aversion that the president's supporters have refused to acknowledge.

But everyone agrees on one thing: Tonight's speech is the most important of his young presidency, and it will be the most revealing of his career. Does he stand and fight for a health-care bill he believes to be a historic and necessary step forward? Or does he back away from it, letting some gestures toward his commitment to the issue stand in for the determined leadership -- and the political gamble -- that would represent real commitment to the issue?

During the campaign, Obama famously told Patrick Gaspard, his political director, "just give me the ball." Today, Obama is the president of the United States. He's got a lot of people screaming at him and cheering for him, and almost as many shouting advice. But he's the guy with the ball. The question is what he does with it.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 27, 2010; 10:48 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
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Comments

The main thing Obama can do tonight is squash any soon-to-come effort to identify a progressive candidate who will run against him in the Democratic primary in 2012. If Obama continues tonight to sound more like Bush or McCain, then I predict a major effort soon to build a Democratic campaign against Obama. And I will be glad to join that effort.

Posted by: Lomillialor | January 27, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

"But everyone agrees on one thing: Tonight's speech is the most important of his young presidency, and it will be the most revealing of his career. Does he stand and fight for a health-care bill he believes to be a historic and necessary step forward?"


millions of people saw a spark of courage, determination and righteousness in you that motivated them to believe in you.
millions of highly intelligent and jaded people could not have been wrong.
tonight is the night that all of those who supported you are waiting for. for you to step forward and put the wheels under the agenda this country needs to move forward.
you said, "yes we can," and millions of people worked for your election, as they had never worked before.
tonight is your defining moment, president obama.
you know what is right.
dont lose your courage.
pick up the sword.

yes you can!
yes you can!
for all of our sakes,
you have to do the work tonight.

Posted by: jkaren | January 27, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Is there any way at all for a failed health care bill not to be seen as a loss for the President? Isn't pivoting now to something else too late?

Posted by: windshouter | January 27, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Rahm Emmanuel has been a big disappointment. It turns out that the street-brawler he claimed to be really doesn't exist. He's more of a bully who finds the most minor fight he thinks he can win for the purpose of getting a notch on his belt.

Posted by: constans | January 27, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I agree political speech is a kind of 'concrete deliverable' for a politician / president. But I am doubtful that is the only thing. I am sure I am weak in History, but I do not remember such burning speeches by FDR. Get back to your original theme - governance matters.

Think about tomorrow morning - what will be your blog posts and what will be my comments, then again next week and subsequent days.

Again all that we will be discussing will be 'actions'.

This is not the first time that Obama would be giving important speech. Did Frank Rich of NYT not called bluff on that? On his speeches and in the end why it matters less.

This just reminds me a Fleedtwood Mac song - 'give me lies, sweet little lies'.

I believe we all need to go past this heighten state (no, I am not carrying water here for White House in lowering expectations). What all matters is what 'action Congress and White House' take in days to come. Speeches do not.

By the way, some time back you talked about how folks will be talking about Technology / Internet rather than politics about the first decade of 21st century. I argued against that. But today I agree with you:

for all the talk of Barack Obama's education policy and it's consequences on American Education; look for Apple's Tablet announcement. That will be far more 'epoch' making and influential than Obama's words.

If you decide to have children, they will be more benefited / impacted by 'Apple tablet computer' than whatever Obama would talk today.

Note - neither do I work for Apple, Inc. nor do I hold any of their securities directly.

Posted by: umesh409 | January 27, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

"Rahm Emmanuel has been a big disappointment. It turns out that the street-brawler he claimed to be really doesn't exist. He's more of a bully who finds the most minor fight he thinks he can win for the purpose of getting a notch on his belt."


But, but, but, remember 2006? He managed to turn a situation where the dominant party in power was incredibly unpopular into a victory for the party out of power. I mean, that's hard to do when your opposition is polling in the upper 20% range.

Posted by: y2josh_us | January 27, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

I hate to say this, and I'm not yet ready to say I have voter's remorse, but in recent days I have started to wonder how Hillary would be handling this right now.

Posted by: bupkiss | January 27, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

*I am sure I am weak in History, but I do not remember such burning speeches by FDR.*

You are correct. You are weak in history.

Posted by: constans | January 27, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sanguine.

I recall an interview that David Axelrod gave just after the election. In response to a question about the President-elect's famously even-keeled temperament, he said something to the effect that yes, Obama really *was* that way and that a long and often grueling campaign inevitably reveals the character and values of a politician. Sadly, I suspect the same thing can be said of Obama's first year in office: we now have a window into his governing principles and abilities. The Great Dither, for instance, was a real thing.

I'll also state the obvious: campaigning for President is fundamentally different from holding the office. Time and time again Obama's supporters keep invoking that magical time in 2008 when history was made, that we all should trust Obama to . . . well, I'm not sure. One thing I'm sure about, though, is that the theory of Obama has collapsed and that he needs to shift quickly from his brand of persona politics to kitchen-table policies that nudge his approval numbers up, or he'll go the way of Carter. Less "self" narrative and more grasp of how lower- and middle-income Americans are struggling. Less lofty themes; more nitty-gritty in-the-weeds ideas that (first and foremost) win back his base.

Frankly, my gut tells me it's too late, that the Republicans have already defeated him.

Posted by: scarlota | January 27, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Obama has got to show leadership. It is as simple as that. Leadership fir the Presidency is not cajoling everyone along to reach a consensus; it is staking out principles and exhorting Congress to enact them and people to push for Congress to do so.

It's true that Congress hides behind Obama way too much, but he is, after all, the Pres, and one of the main things he can do is exert some leadership. But to do so he has to be willing to stand for something.

What has been missing is any sense the Dems (all of them) really care about health care reform, really care about people who have to go to the individual market and find only unaffordable and inadequate care. This is just one more example of the inequities in our society--it is as if we were punishing entrepreneurs and the self-employed. Not what we want to be doing in this economic environment.

More and more I get the feeling that we are unraveling as a country. The worst thing Obama could possibly do is kill people's sense of hope. The lack-of-turnout figures seem to show that is exactly what is happening. Maybe in the future people will be happy tweeting and reading facebook while the Corps run everytihing and take the money, but it sounds like a bleak future to me.

Posted by: Mimikatz | January 27, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Look, success on HCR is a simple matter of political survival for HIM, not just the Democrats up next year. Now that McCain-Feingold is dead the only way any Democrat will be able to compete will be to lean heavily on small donors -- and the committed base voters who make up the small donor base are not going to open their wallets for a guy they perceive to have betrayed their signature cause.

Rahm's advice to back off is particularly mystifying in this context. It's impossible to accomplish the stuff people really want -- ending pre-existing condition discrimination, ensuring household affordability, and cleaning up the industry -- without fundamentally reforming the system. Any of the stuff they could break off will look laughably modest in light of the massive drama building up to this point. And the GOP will still call it Socialist. "Rahmbo" apparently thinks that any "win" is better than any "loss," but in fact this would be the worst of all worlds.

Posted by: NS12345 | January 27, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

y2josh_us: even there, you're giving Rahm too much credit! In 2006, Rahm wanted to concentrate on maybe 18 close races, while the folks at DKos and MyDD were working to widen the playing field. In the last 5-6 weeks before the midterm, Rahm & Co. belatedly jumped on the bandwagon that Markos and friends had gotten rolling.

Left to his own devices, Rahm would have blown 2006.

Posted by: rt42 | January 27, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Mimikatz --

I totally agree. Virtually every single Democrat in office campaigned partly on healthcare. Even Ben Nelson. This was supposedly one of those rare poles holding up the Big Tent.

But it turns out it doesn't unite them at all. Lieberman, Nelson, Bayh, etc... care far more about parochial interests than millions of uninsured Americans.

It will be very interesting to see what this party WILL be willing to spend money on going forward. Billions for corn subsidies and pork projects, not one penny for healthcare...

Posted by: NS12345 | January 27, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Dream on, Ezra. The Dems have given up.

And rt42 is right about history.

Posted by: AZProgressive | January 27, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Hillary almost certainly would have been a less ambitious president, and more concerned with governance than Obama. Would that have satisfied everybody? Probably not. It's unlikely she could have worked miracles in the economy in a years time (and neither would have McCain). Still, she had more experience in Washington, and might have picked a better cabinet, on the whole--one that had a little experience outside the worlds of Beltway politics and academia.

But I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Obama back-pedals on healthcare or speaks in the most ambiguous terms, disappointing the base. He can do a lot to help the Republicans in 2010 tonight, and I'm laying odds that he'll do it. Not a guarantee, but I'm betting whatever he says about healthcare reform will be unsatisfying to the base. I think he's destined to disappoint. But an election based on the sweeping rhetoric of "hope and change" are almost certain to disappoint.

On the other hand. everyone who supported John McCain was already disappointed in him, so if he had won, they'd all be saying: "Yup. Pretty weak. Just like we thought."

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 27, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

'constans' - So then can you tell (or point) me more about FDR's famous and pivotal State of Union Speeches? I know that contemporary use of that term he coined and FDR kind of revived it.

The reason is for the Presidency which wanted to be FDR II, we can see whether there were any pivotal speeches of FDR which made that presidency consequential or was it the same thing called 'governance and execution' which Barack Obama is finding so hard and which our elected Dems are making mess off.

Posted by: umesh409 | January 27, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Rahm Emmanuel is a glorified fundraiser with the singular skill of loudly taking credit for good things that have nothing to do with Rahm Emmanuel. When he ran the DCCC he advised House Dem candidates to avoid talking about the Iraq War and ran ads showing a border fence. He's good at twisting arms to raise cash and good at cowing the meek sheep in the Democratic Party with bluster. He's shown absolutely no skill as a strategist other than the good timing to follow the worst President in a century on the national scene. When he last worked for a Democratic President it gave us Speaker Gingrich. Obama is foolish if he listens to Rahm about anything. Rahm is a goon, not a thinker.

Posted by: jamusco | January 27, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse


David Plouffe quoted the President, then Sen., during the campaign, saying he didn't want Mr. Plouffe to go all politico-geek and try for convoluted ways to get some outrageous number of electoral votes.
Obama said he didn't want to end up hitting 260 trying for 360. (Close to that.) How about that for the
health care bill? Please?
Pass the Damn Bill-I just 'joined' that non-movement movement. NY chapter? Yo, Pass the Damn Bill, Already'

Posted by: dcunning1 | January 27, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

"I hate to say this, and I'm not yet ready to say I have voter's remorse, but in recent days I have started to wonder how Hillary would be handling this right now."

is that based on her track record with health care reform during her husband's administration?
this should tells all that one needs to know....
she chose to abandon her passion for health care reform when she left the senate. her overriding passion for health care reform appears to have been a mile wide and an inch deep, as she knew that would be the first battle to be waged.
aside from which, if she were president, there is a good chance we would have already bombed the military facilities in iran.
the clinton administration is in good part to blame for the mess we are in now.
barack obama inherited the economic decisions of the clinton administration, the failure in health care reform and the lies that created the war in iraq and the unravelling of trust in government.
now, a year later, we expect it all to be fixed.
barack obama has more years to undo the damage, and i pray that he will....but it was the failures of those folks that brought us mostly to this point.
i dont want them back.
just my opinion.

Posted by: jkaren | January 27, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Rahm is getting to be a serious problem for promoting a progressive agenda.

Posted by: adamiani | January 27, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

*'constans' - So then can you tell (or point) me more about FDR's famous and pivotal State of Union Speeches?*

FDR didn't leverage SOTU speeches so much as radio speeches, called "fireside chats." He used them to reassure the public, map out his goals, and, of course, criticize the policies of Hoover.

*Rahm is a goon, not a thinker.*

Goons are necessary sometimes, but as an enforcer of policy, not a formulator.

Kevin, you're going from "conservative here out of curiosity" to "obnoxious adolescent."

Posted by: constans | January 27, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

FDR didn't get everything he wanted, either. Nor was Social Security as ambitious as originally proposed. He also wanted Universal Healthcare and guaranteed employment--essentially, somehow, the government would make sure everybody had a job, all the time. Not sure how that would have worked out.

And he made speeches on those issues.

FDR did a lot to help perpetuate the depression--having farmers slaughter livestock and burn crops to help prop up falling commodity prices while people were starving was just not a good strategy, and creating scarcity of basic staples did not help improve the economy.

I doubt he'd be doing as well as Obama in the day of the 24 hour news cycle, with pundits all over the television: "He's telling the farmers to burn their crops! Burn them, Sean! While people in this country can't get a job! While people in this country are starving! Look, here's some video we shot of hundred of slaughtered hogs, rotting in the sun, while this other family we shot video of is starving to death down the street! That's the FDR presidency for you!"

The fact is, whatever else you say about FDRs leadership, Obama has a much steeper hill to climb in advancing his policy initiatives than FDR ever did, depression and all.

If FDR had had talk radio and Fox News to contend with, the narrative would already be: "Hoover's history! That's over! He's gone! This is FDR's Great Depression Now! He owns it! Now, look at this chart, it shows the clear correlation between unemployment going up and FDRs so-called 'Social Security' program!" And so on.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 27, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

'Kevin_Willis' I agree with you when you say Obama has a steeper hill to climb than FDR. But then Obama has 24/7 news cycle at his disposal too and all the modern tech. and new ways of doing politics (internet). So I am not sure any of this 'steeper hill' takes away the disastrous way Obama is conducting his Presidency. I do not believe it is the question of 'pissing off base' is going to land him votes of Independents. Those votes will come to him, as like any other, only if he governs and that is exactly he is not doing.

'constants' - I know about FDR's radio talk and Obama has a nice improvement on that - Sat. speech on Internet video blog as well. Question is - is it helping to 'govern'? Nope.

Posted by: umesh409 | January 27, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

I've had 2 friends die for lack of health insurance, and a family member had his health ruined.

If the Dems let health care reform die, they will never get another penny from me. Never another phone bank hour. Never another afternoon at the mall organizing.

If Obama does not fight for this, I will be outraged.

I worked with OFA last summer on the health care campaign. I heard many heart-rending stories. It would be unconscionable to start this drive and abandon it when victory is in sight.

A recent Harvard study found that 45K Americans die every year because they lack health insurance. Last time it took 16 years before they tackled health insurance. If that happens again it will mean death for 750K Americans!!

Posted by: mminka | January 27, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

mminka has a point: healthcare reform has been the beating heart of the Democratic base for generations. If Nate Silver and others are correct, odds are that it will fail. The base will turn on Rahmbama (indeed, that's starting to happen now), and by '12 the Republicans will emerge with strong margins in Congress and control of the White House. All because of Rahmbama's crude notion that the way to keep the independents is to kick the base in the face, again and again and again.

Posted by: scarlota | January 27, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

I give up. I was never starry-eyed about Obama, but I fought, donated and pounded on doors for him.

I never thought he was a liberal's dream.

I never thought he was going to be the next coming of FDR.

But I thought I was at least getting someone with some basic competence.

The lack of leadership on health care reform has been incredible.

Posted by: tracy2 | January 27, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

I hate to admit it, but Obama is a better agitator than a leader.

Posted by: livingamongthehoodwinked | January 27, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Rahm should shut up now.

He doesn't appear to have learned that winning is meaningless in the absence of a goal.

Posted by: pj_camp | January 27, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

mminka,
sorry about your friends
what did they die of?

Posted by: livingamongthehoodwinked | January 27, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Why does there have to be a fall guy (i.e. Rahm E.)? Leadership means taking responsibility - not shifting blame or always looking for a scapegoat. I am so disappointed!

Posted by: livingamongthehoodwinked | January 27, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Obama is the Adrian Peterson of politics...potential greatness but an unavoidable tendency to fumble the ball.

Posted by: tom_walker | January 27, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Here's my prediction: Obama proclaims to be fighting for comprehensive healthcare about fifteen times in the speech, yet never once proposes a specific fight-plan.

Obama will fight for healthcare by...

waiting around to see what Congress decides to do!

Posted by: ssciaraf | January 27, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

I used to tease liberal friends they struggle with priority distinction. If confronted with obligations to mow ones lawn and informed by his child there was a kitchen fire in the house, the liberal is frozen with indecision. Ezra confirms and compounds this observation suggesting that unwanted health reform remains an Obama imperative. Does he fight, compromise, focus on job restoration, propose Clintonian mini-bites, or attempt pushing things down our throats assumedly wanted by no more than 20% of the population? Running a country is so much more difficult than running for it's leadership.

Posted by: ecrutle | January 27, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

“But everyone agrees on one thing: Tonight's speech is the most important of his young presidency, and it will be the most revealing of his career.”

I thought one of the last 600 speeches was the most important of his career. Coffee is for closers…Obama must be a tea drinker.

Posted by: kingstu01 | January 27, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

There is no issue about which I care as deeply as health care reform. Democrats have the opportunity to position themselves as defenders of the American middle class for decades to come. All they need to do is immediately pass the Senate bill in the House and work through the reconciliation process. On the other hand, if they fumble this and don't pass a strong bill, I will make sure to never give them money again and vote either third-party or not at all in November. Obama better watch what he says tonight, anything that might suggest even a hint of weakness on this issue would be deeply irresponsible. And they better not move on to any other issues before the health care bill has been passed.

Posted by: opinionpieces | January 27, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

President Obama here is what you need to say. The only thing we need to fear is fear itself. It was a dark day on December 8th, 1941 but America hung together and won. When JFK said we would have a man on the moon in 10 years we did it. President Obama it is time to lay the cards on the table. Give the American people direction, a challenge for the 21st century to build a better, greater America. To be that place on the hill. I believe in you President Obama. Time to channel Moses and Lincoln.

Posted by: brianhandel | January 27, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

I see NO change. He abandoned the Public Option and laughed at the idea of Marijuana Legalization. No Good.

Posted by: drtodd1977 | January 27, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

This is getting ridiculous. The State of the Union is watched by a tiny fraction of this country. THe only people on which it ever has any impact is pundits. The notion that the HOuse and Senate should ram through a bill that is growing more and more unpopular by the day just because the president may give a decent speech that about 1/7 of the nation watches is a ridiculous stretch.

Posted by: Bob65 | January 27, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

Enjoy Barry's snoozefest Dims, most Americans will be watching American Idol instead.

Posted by: screwjob2 | January 27, 2010 7:18 PM | Report abuse

It doesn't matter if only 20% of the public insists on a healthcare reform if the Democrats can't win elections without the votes of that 20%.

I've given up on Obama on the other issues I care about,(1) these stupid, god awful, god damned wars and (2) holding the powerful accountable to the rule of law. The Democrats in Congress have gone along with Obama too much on those issues, too. The only thing left is healthcare or else I don't see any reason for choosing Democrats over Republicans. The kinds of bills that people come up with to say Democrats are better than Republicans, really, are not worth my bothering to vote.

Posted by: Sagae | January 27, 2010 8:46 PM | Report abuse

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