The VandeAllen Premortem

The Politico enjoys a solid reputation inside the Beltway; Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen are respected by those they cover. Allen has become a clearinghouse of sorts for advance news from the West Wing. So a late-Friday afternoon take-out analysis on the Obama administration is bound to be throat-clearing -- an attempt to influence how the elite discussion about Obama's presidency is shaped.

Viewed through the prism of the White House, President Barack Obama has not suffered a single legislative defeat, and yet, on the basis of public opinion, and public opinion alone, his agenda -- dubbed the "Big Bang" theory by White House insiders and the Politico -- is now apparently beginning to fail.

Indeed, it looks like the circuits on health care are, to borrow the phrase, a bit jammed. VandeHei and Allen, citing Democratic strategists, point to two decisions that I think White House officials concede, in retrospect, were problematic. One was to force House Democrats to vote in favor of an energy bill that was doomed in the Senate. No one at the White House seemed to realize that anxiety about cap-and-trade -- never successfully defined by Democrats -- would spread, and would infect House Democrats to the point of extreme skepticism about a much more popular issue -- health care. The second insight is that Obama's team displayed impatience. They had the best salesman in the world, but instead of focusing on a few marquee items, they had him cut commercials for everything in stock. It's the consequence of being popular -- every speech Obama made was listened to as if it were a major pronouncement. It's hard to build public support for complicated issues when you change topics daily.

VandeHei and Harris do not address the most recent turn against Obama. A vigorous and critical debate among elite liberals has crossed the threshold and now has begun to pull Democrats and liberals, en masse, away from Obama, for the opposite reason: he's doing too little, too slowly.

They also don't address a huge time-consuming governing choice that the President himself made: the decision to focus immediately on reparing America's relationship with the world. (As one State Department official put it to me a month ago, "there were many fires to put out -- too many.") Also, there was a Supreme Court vacancy.

Implicit in this criticism, as in many others, is the idea that the Obama White House believed the laws of politics no longer applied and that it did not have to aggressively, repeatedly and directly educate the public to the benefits of the stimulus, financial regulation, the energy bill and health care, each individually over a sustained period of time. Implicit in THIS criticism is the idea that the worst sin of the Obama White House is arrogance.

A third theme is, basically, that the President paid little attention to the political boundaries that Democrats from districts that elected him in those tight swing states are circumscribed by. Primarily, it is a wariness about government itself. Counterfactually, VandeAllen suggest that Obama should have pursued financial regulation and "serious budget cuts," developing a reputation for competence -- the core trait that independents seem to admire -- before moving on to health care.

In time, these themes -- arrogance, salesmanship and focus -- may prove to be the soft underbelly of the confidence, the aggressiveness, and the capacity of the Obama administration.

Why "in time?"

Because the situation for Obama, while perilous, is not dire, and certainly not unique: it is common, actually, for presidential approval to flow down, and August seems to be a particularly bad month. Fact is, Obama is about six or seven points away from changing the debate on health care.

A far less complicated explanantion for Obama's favorability rating decline is that the administration had trouble responding to contingency, and that voters are beginning to blame the current administration for the state of the economy. The deficit -- for which they are not responsible -- ballooned more quickly than they had anticipated. Moderate House Democrats point to the deficit -- not cap and trade -- as the main reason they are wary of health care reform. Let's take them at their word. Obama's in power; he gets the blame.

There is also the question of why independents are wary. As Ronald Brownstein noted today, health care has become the "classic issue that wounds a president: one that unites his opponents and divides his own side. Obama probably has little hope of changing the first half of that equation; when Congress returns he'll probably need to focus more on improving the second." Independents are quite sensitive to partisanship. And no matter how hard the White House tried to send signals to the contrary, independents can't be faulted for integrating their perception of Barack Obama with their perception of the Democratic Party, especially since the White House left it to Democrats to define his health care bill.

All these tactical points might mean the end of the Obama era, or they might be intermediate and incomplete attempts to prejudge the outcome and predict the future. The Politico's writers make some good points, but their evidence does not support the thesis that Barack Obama's project is failing, or that introducing health care was premature.