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Confounding Matt Bai


The New York Times Magazine writer ponders a paradox that doesn’t exist:

Earlier this month, almost a year from the day when Barack Obama rode the wave of history into Grant Park, he had one of those weeks that makes his presidency seem, at times, so confounding. First Obama endured an electoral embarrassment, watching his party lose off-year gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. . . . Then, just five days later, as Obama’s manifest political weakness was still being dissected on cable TV, the president stood in the Rose Garden and hailed the passage in the House of Representatives of the most comprehensive health care bill in the nation’s history — a bill he had helped pass, narrowly but solidly, by making a rare weekend visit to the Capitol to lobby for it personally. It was, as Obama acknowledged, just a first step, but it was a step no other president had managed to scale, and it seemed to confuse this issue of how powerful a president Obama really is. If Obama has no coattails, then how was he able to pressure nervous lawmakers into making such a perilous vote? And if he had enough influence to get health care reform done, then why were his coattails missing?

Here’s another way of presenting the same facts. In the same week, Obama’s party lost two governorships and saw 39 members of his party vote against his chief initiative. Doesn’t seem quite so interestingly contradictory now, does it? Two other questions that Bai’s opening paragraph raises: Under what circumstances does a 220-215 vote count as “solid” as well as “narrow”? And if House passage was only a “first step,” then how can we conclude that Obama got health-care reform “done”?

Eventually Bai hits on a way to resolve the supposed paradox. “[W]hile Obama’s personal brand may not be directly transferable to other candidates, it can still be leveraged into public support for his agenda.” And what’s the evidence for this contention? There is none:

The real problem for Obama is that he hasn’t really done that yet. The White House has, to this point, mostly directed its power to persuade toward committee chairmen and other lawmakers, turning its attention to a broader public campaign only sporadically, when pressed to defend its agenda by tea-party protesters and fading poll numbers. As a result, perhaps, public support for each of Obama’s signature initiatives, including health care, remains lower than support for the president himself. In other words, without a sustained sales pitch to the voters, Obama has yet to convert his personal good will with the electorate into corresponding enthusiasm for his agenda.

Bai is being unfair to the president. It’s not for lack of trying! In September Obama gave a televised address to a joint session of Congress to talk up the biggest item on his agenda. It’s hard for any president to do more to grab people’s attention as he makes his case. But the address doesn’t seem to have done much to make the health-care bills popular. Getting Obama to talk more probably isn’t going to help the Democrats.