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Where's the Obama I Voted For?

If you’ve been a Democrat for more than two or three years, disappointment with your leaders is something that comes rather naturally. From the 1970s until well into the previous decade, the party produced presidents and presidential candidates like Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry. These men weren’t lovable losers. They were just losers. Even the lone winner among them--Bill Clinton--famously and infamously found ways to disappoint.

But then Barack Obama came along. And for the first time, at least in my memory, Democrats had a leader who consistently outsmarted not just his opponents but his supporters as well. Over and over again in the 2008 campaign, those of us rooting for him would panic over his strategy. Over and over again, Obama proved us wrong. He had an uncanny ability to block out the noise and confound Beltway perceptions, to ignore the ups and downs of the news cycle in order to pursue broader goals. Even for me, somebody who generally resisted the Obama kool-aid, it was something to behold.

I remember the sensation most vividly during the financial crisis of September--when John McCain suspended his campaign and suggested canceling a scheduled debate, in order to return to Washington. Suggesting that a president should be able to campaign and govern simultaneously, Obama rebuffed the proposal--a move for which, I was sure, nervous voters would punish him. Instead, the public rallied to Obama and rejected McCain. They saw a leader who was unflappable, who had his own sense of direction, and who could manage a crisis.

This cool demeanor became his trademark and, eventually, supporters took to emailing around a photoshop image every time political trouble appeared. If you're on a progressive mailing list, chances are you saw it a few dozen times--a picture of Obama giving a speech, with the caption “Everybody Chill the F*** Out. I’ve Got This.”

Tuesday night, as the returns from Massachusetts came in, I was waiting for the president or his advisers to say something along those lines. Everybody knew how the night would go: Martha Coakley was going to lose Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat. With it would go the Democrats’ ability to break Republican filibusters. And her opponent, Scott Brown, was already promising to block health care reform when it came up for its final vote--once the House and Senate were done negotiating a compromise version.

It was a dire situation but not, necessarily, a fatal one. Options were available--most obviously having the House pass the Senate bill, sending that measure to the president for signature, and then enacting some amendments via the reconciliation process (in which only 51 votes would be necessary for passage). But the shock of losing Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat was sure to unnerve the Democrats: Pundits were bound to declare health care reform dead and members of Congress, who always spook easily, were bound to panic. Somebody needed to devise a counter-strategy, establish some talking points, and keep the process moving along.

Somebody, in short, needed to say “Everybody Chill the F*** Out. I’ve Got This.”

But particularly in those first precious hours of media coverage, there appeared to be no resolute talking points from the White House--and no resolute talking heads to give them. Instead we heard from Republicans who thought health care reform should go away and Democrats who, more or less, seemed incline to agree. This was even true on Democrat-friendly MSNBC, where hosts seeking balance had to read aloud statements issued earlier in the day--and the strongest ones came from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was admirably standing her ground more or less alone.

Obama's advisers made the rounds the next morning, but, even then, the direction seemed vague and cautious. David Axelrod promised that the president wouldn’t drop health care reform, arguing (correctly) that it was part of why people elected Obama and a factor in the economic struggles they faced. But there were no hints of how, exactly, the president planned to proceed--or what, exactly, he expected of his supporters in Congress.

Obama himself later gave an interview to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, but there too the instruction was hazy: We should push forward with health care reform, he said, concentrating on areas of core agreement. But what did he mean by that? House-Senate negotiations had already reduced the bill, mostly, to areas of core agreement. Did he want to winnow further--and, if so, how? To include Republicans? To ease anxieties among Senate moderates or House liberals?

Meanwhile, the chaos in Congress only got worse, with liberal members of the House--the ones most committed to the idea of health care reform--rejecting all of the obvious ways forward. Barney Frank said passing the Senate bill, and then fixing it with reconciliation, would seem to snub the voters. Raul Grijalva suggested breaking up the bill into parts, then sending them over to the Senate one-by-one. By late afternoon, health care reform looked to be dead. Not in trouble, mind you. Dead. And still the White House's intentions were unclear.

Second-guessing political decisions is not something I like to do--at least not in print. Ask me whether Medicare should pay less for surgical procedures and I will give you my opinion with conviction. But ask me whether a political figure made the smart call by confronting an opponent, and I’ll probably demur. That’s because politics so often comes down to difficult judgment calls--and so often involves things happening behind the scenes.

And maybe that's what's happening here. My limited sources tell me only so much. But the frustration with the administration was palpable among Democrats today. Members of Congress and their staffs were asking the same questions I was: What does the president want? How badly does he want it? A lot of the legislators ended up running for the exits. And while lack of a clear party line from the White House surely wasn't the reason for Democratic panic on Wednesday--the political anger behind the Massachusetts election is real enough--it doesn't appear to have made that panic less likely, either.

In the end, the panic subsided, at least a little bit. As Ezra Klein notes, Democrats actually discovered some resolve by day's end. Frank ended up taking back his initial comments, in an interview with Talking Points Media, suggesting that perhaps passing the Senate bill was possible if there was a way to guarantee fixes through reconciliation. Over on the Senate side, Kent Conrad--a bellwether for moderates--told The Hill he was open to such thinking. There was also talk of putting together a newer, slimmer alternative--a measure that, however disappointing, would still bring relief to millions while also building a foundation for more reforms later.

That's good news, or as good as can be expected at this point. But if health care reform is to be salvaged--and, I'll be honest, I'm not terribly optimistic right now--it will take something more. It's going to take the president showing the resolve and leadership that got him elected. The last 36 hours have made me doubt that he will. But, lord knows, he's proven me wrong before. Maybe he'll do it again.

Update: I finally read the full transcript of Obama's interview with Stephanopoulos, which wasn't available when I first wrote this item. And he's actually better than the snippets I'd seen before. The key passage--where he talks about coalescing around "core elements"--still seems soft. But he's unapologetic about pursuing health care, suggesting that it was a major crisis and that the only way to solve it was to tackle it with a comprehensive plan. Also of note: White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs, speaking to MSNBC on Wednesday evening, pointed to passage of the Senate bill as a possible strategy. Maybe the White House is finding its footing after all.