US & World

For Obama, What A Difference A Week Made

With the passage of the health care overhaul bill, the president is exuding confidence. Turmoil at the Republican National Committee over the past week, and the release Tuesday of a major new and largely sympathetic book about the president by New Yorker editor David Remnick, also haven't hurt White House efforts to drive its own, new narrative.

To paraphrase a former president, it's been a heckuva few weeks for the current one.

President Obama signed his hard-won health care legislation into law, embarked on a road show to market it, and mimicked that same former president's famous "bring it on" challenge to Republicans rallying their party faithful with calls to repeal the new law.

He's lectured leaders from Israel and Afghanistan, endorsed an offshore drilling plan, announced new gas mileage requirements, and, his voice shot-through with sarcasm during a speech in Iowa last week, mocked the media for peddling poll-driven impatience.

Amazing what a win in a major legislative battle will do for a president's spirit. (Turmoil over spending and leadership at the Republican National Committee over the past week, and the release Tuesday of a major new and largely sympathetic book about the president by New Yorker editor David Remnick, also haven't hurt White House efforts to drive its own, new narrative.)

Though the president's national job approval ratings failed to get a boost by the passage of the health care overhaul — his numbers have remained steady this year at just under 50 percent — he has earned grudging respect even from those who don't agree with his policies.

"He's achieved something that virtually everyone in Washington thought he couldn't," says Henry Olsen, vice president and director of the business-oriented American Enterprise Institute's National Research Initiative. "And that's given him confidence."

The protracted health care battle looks to have taught the White House something about power, says presidential historian Gil Troy — a lesson that will inform Obama's pursuit of his initiatives going forward.

"I think that Obama realizes that presidential power is a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets," Troy says. "He exercised that power and had a success with health care passage, and now he wants to make sure people realize it's not just a blip on the map."

The White House now has an opportunity, he says, to change the narrative that had been looming — that the Democrats would lose big in the fall midterm elections, and that Obama was looking more like one-term President Jimmy Carter than two-termer Ronald Reagan, who also managed a difficult first-term legislative win and survived his party's bad showing in the midterms.

Stepping Back From A Precipice

Those watching the re-emergent president in recent days say it's difficult to imagine that it was only weeks go that Obama's domestic agenda had been given last rites, and pundits were preparing their pieces on a failed presidency.

Obama himself had framed the health care debate as a referendum on his presidency. A loss would have "ruined the rest of his presidential term," says Darrell West, director of governance studies at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution. "It would have made it difficult to address other issues and emboldened his critics to claim he was a failed president."

The conventional wisdom in Washington after the Democrats lost their supermajority in the U.S. Senate when Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts seat long held by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy was that Obama would scale back his health care ambitions to get something passed.

"I thought he was going to do what most presidents would have done — take two-thirds of a loaf and declare victory," says the AEI's Olsen. "But he doubled down and made it a vote of confidence on his presidency, parliamentary-style."

"You've got to be impressed with an achievement like that," Olsen says. But Olsen is among those who argue that, long-term, Obama and his party would have been better served politically by an incremental approach to reworking the nation's health care system, something that may have been more palatable to independent voters Democrats will need in the fall.

"He would have been able to show he was listening more, that he heard their concerns about the size and scope of this," Olsen says.

Muscling out a win on a sweeping health care package may have invigorated the president and provided evidence of leadership, but, his critics say, it remains to be seen whether Obama and his party can reverse what the polls now suggest is a losing issue for them.

Golden Boy Tested

One of the questions that has trailed Obama is how he would deal with criticism and the prospect of failure, says Troy, a McGill University history professor and visiting scholar affiliated with the bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

"He is one of those golden boys who never failed in his life, and people like that are often not used to criticism and failure," Troy says.

Obama and his campaign were temporarily knocked for a loop early in the 2008 presidential campaign by then-GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's "zingers," Troy says, "and Obama was thrown off balance again by the loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat."

The arc of the health care debate reminded observers that Obama is not just a product of Harvard, but also of tough Chicago politics, Troy says.

"You don't travel as far and as fast as Barack Obama without having a spine of steel," he says. "He has an ability to regenerate, to come back, and knows that there is no such thing as a dirty win: a win is a win" — even if it infuriates the progressive wing of the president's party, which wanted far more sweeping changes to the nation's health care system.

GOP Stumbles

Obama's new mojo has been abetted, in a way, by high-profile troubles at the Republican National Committee.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele has been under fire over the past week for his spending on private jets and limousines, and a staffer resigned after submitting to the committee a nearly $2,000 tab for a visit by young party members to a risque Los Angeles nightclub.

The disarray intensified Monday with the resignation of the committee's chief of staff, and growing anger among top GOP strategists and fundraisers.

"Steele has kept Republicans off-message," says West, of Brookings. "Every story about RNC spending is one less story about their views on health care at a time when news coverage has shifted in a more favorable direction."

The distraction continued Monday when detractors accused Steele of playing the race card after he told ABC News that as an African American, he, like Obama, is being held to a higher standard. White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs, when asked about Steele's assertion, said the RNC chairman's problem "isn't the race card, it's the credit card."

The controversy, Olsen says, hasn't been good for the Republicans' preparations for elections in terms of money and organization. But he doesn't view it as "a voter issue."

How Win Translates

When Reagan won his tough legislative battle in the early 1980s, it was over tax cuts, something voters saw as directly related to the then-dismal economy.

Obama has long made a case for health care reform as a big piece of economic reform, but it's a difficult argument to make to voters, Olsen says, particularly when many of the health care law's major provisions don't go into effect for another four years.

But observers like Troy say they believe that though initially unrelated, a boost in employment among Americans would encourage voters to look more favorably on the health care overhauls.

"The perceived success of health care legislation rides on job creation," Troy says.

Economists have recently declared the nation's recession, which began in 2007, over. But the unemployment rate has remained stubbornly at just under 10 percent.

"I think he understands he's in a crucial period of his presidency," Olsen says. "He's taken a lot of risks, and there's not immediate rewards."

Obama faces continuing tests on other big domestic issues, including Wall Street reform, the economy and climate change, as well as myriad foreign policy challenges ranging from testy relations with Israel and uncertainties about Iraq's nuclear capabilities, to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Late last month, the administration and Russia agreed to a new nuclear arms treaty that is expected to be signed Thursday in advance of an international summit in Washington. The world is waiting, Troy says, to see how the president's renewed confidence plays out on the international stage.

But the newly invigorated president continues to encourage voters to wait and see what his efforts produce.

"Every single day since I signed the reform law, there's been another poll or headline that said, 'Nation still divided on health care reform. Polls haven't changed yet,' " he told that audience in Iowa last week.

"Well, yeah," said the president, with a wide, sly smile. "It just happened last week."

"It's been a week, folks." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit