A small group of demonstrators stand outside of the HIlton Hotel and Suites prior to former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, president of the The Heritage Foundation, speaking at a "Defund Obamacare Tour" rally in Indianapolis August 26, 2013. (REUTERS/Nate Chute)
Can President Barack Obama heal his second term from the self-inflicted wounds of Obamacare? How?
The usual inside-the-Beltway doctors are offering the usual inside-the-Beltway prescriptions: Amputate! (He should fire someone.) Transfusion! (Bring new blood into his insular circle, ideally someone who can say “no” to him and have it count.)
Inside the White House, one remedy dominates the discussion. As Obama himself said Nov. 14: Things may turn around “if we can just get the darn website working and smooth this thing out.” Aides say that growing numbers of Americans signing up for health insurance will defend those benefits — making it harder for Republicans to rally wavering Democrats behind crippling the Affordable Care Act.
Dig a little more, and administration officials confess to hoping that a steadily improving economy could be a political cure-all. “The No. 1 priority has and will be economic progress,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Nov. 4.
But there’s something else Obama can do, something he’s been generally regarded as doing well: Campaign. Get out there now, ahead of the 2014 midterm campaign, to highlight the differences between Democrats and Republicans on key issues that are not Obamacare.
“He should accelerate the political calendar. Start 2014 now,” according to a senior Republican figure in Washington, who requested anonymity because “I’m not really in the business of giving advice to Democrats.”
Obama should “go out and talk about immigration. Talk about the economy. Talk about gay rights. Climate. Promise to close Gitmo [Guantanamo Bay],” the former government official said. “His problem isn’t Republicans. We’ll never be on his side. His problem is Democrats. He has to remind them why he’s their guy.”
One prominent Democrat, who has informally advised the Obama White House, warned of pitfalls associated with campaigning amid the potential: “It could be too partisan. It could look opportunistic. It might remind folks of what he couldn’t get done. And some Democrats won’t want him anywhere near them.
“But it might help to bring back 2012, [boost] morale, and there aren’t a lot of other options at this moment. Not until the website is OK,” the strategist said.
The argument goes something like this: The second-term curse festers because presidents suddenly lack the platform of a national campaign — a natural amplifier for their message, a natural us-versus-them glue for their party, something to get excited about.
For Obama and Democrats, the government shutdown served both purposes in the early days of the botched rollout of federal marketplaces for health insurance.
But now that’s over. Obama has never been more unpopular. Americans increasingly doubt his competence and express growing mistrust of him personally — a famously tough trend to reverse. The would-need-two-upgrades-to-be-merely-botched rollout of his signature domestic policy achievement has turned what the White House hoped would be a strength into a nightmare (and a weapon for Republicans looking to oust vulnerable Democrats). A recent poll found that Mitt Romney would win if the Nov. 2012 election were held today.
“What he [Obama] now has is a headwind in terms of communicating,” said Michael Feldman, a former senior adviser to Al Gore.
But “let’s be clear: It’s not like the legislative process was humming along nicely before this,” Feldman told Yahoo News. “Political sclerosis was the reality.”
Still, administration officials and Obama allies don’t dismiss the “amputate” or “transfusion” arguments out of hand.
“The fundamental question is: Once you have stabilized, how do you give confidence to the American people and to the president himself that you have this under control going forward?” former senior adviser David Plouffe told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday when asked whether heads would roll.
(One frequent target of congressional Democratic criticism: White House chief of staff Denis McDonough. “I love Denis. But Denis is a staffer. He’s really smart, but he’s an implementer, he figures out how to implement the president’s vision,” one Democratic Senate aide said. “Who says ‘no’ to the president? In a way that it counts, I mean.”)
But Obama aides say that firing someone before the HealthCare.gov website is fixed would net them at best a 24-hour respite at the cost of punishing a loyal staffer. And, privately, they say that bringing in a true outsider risks being less like a transfusion and more like a transplant — with the possibility that the new organ will be rejected by the host.
Relative to those fixes, the “he should campaign” argument has another strength: Obama is already doing it.
The president has moved to break the logjam on overhauling America’s immigration policy. The Senate had passed comprehensive legislation. Republican House Speaker John Boehner said the lower chamber wouldn’t take it up but might take a piecemeal approach.
“They're suspicious of comprehensive bills,” Obama acknowledged Tuesday at the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council. “But you know what? If they want to chop that thing up into five pieces, as long as all five pieces get done, I don't care what it looks like, as long as it's actually delivering on those core values that we talk about.”
That drew an energetic response from the Dream Action Coalition that advocates what supporters call immigration reform.
“Now that the President has signaled his support for a step by step approach on immigration, we await for Republicans to finally get the message that there is no excuses to not act on an immigration fix this year,” the group said in a statement.
“I didn’t run for president to go back to where we were. I want us to go forward,” he said at the campaign-style event in Ohio. “And we’ve got to do more to create more good, middle-class jobs like the ones folks have here.”
Unprompted, the Republican quoted above pointed to the Cleveland speech: “It goes back to what was basically his only campaign promise in 2012: ‘Vote for me, Ohio, I won’t fire you.’ That and ‘We’re fixing Obamacare.'”
What about the president's promise to shutter the Guantanamo Bay prison? “It is still absolutely the administration’s firm commitment to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay,” press secretary Jay Carney said Monday. “The facility continues to drain our resources in an era of sequestration and tighter budgets, and it harms our national security.”
Gay rights? In Nov. 4 remarks to his Organizing for Action (OFA) group, Obama predicted victory in the Senate on legislation forbidding workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. (It passed.)
“There is going to be resistance in the House,” he said. “But the more that we can continue at a grassroots level to speak out on behalf of the values that we care about — they’re mainstream values. They’re the values that 60, 70, 80 percent of the country believe in. And they’re also the values that young people and future generations believe in.”
On a conference call Monday with OFA volunteers, Obama shifted from defending Obamacare to asking for their help pressuring the Senate to confirm his judicial nominees. Few issues do more to fuel partisan passions.
It’s not (or not just) an attempt to distract Americans. Obama has pledged action on these priorities before, and a senior administration official underlined that the White House views them as matters of substance, not (or not just) as political weapons.
But there’s no mistaking the campaign-style rhetoric.
It was good enough for Obama when he strove to make the 2012 election a choice, not a referendum. Will it work now?