Welcome to Washington, Mr. Obama.
[IMGCAP(1)]President Barack Obama was able to run an insurgency presidential campaign under the banner of “change— for legitimate reasons: Though a sitting Senator, he had spent not much more than two years in the city. Elected in 2004, he took office in January 2005, but by January 2007 was running for president full time, racing around the country scouring for votes.
But now, the president is very much part of Washington. He lives above the office at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and rarely gets back to Chicago for long.
And it’s hurting his agenda. The public doesn’t trust Washington as much as it did a peripatetic candidate who seemed, to enough of them, to be genuinely seeking change. Even as he tries to dig back into the grass roots by staging “town hall— events and firing off messages to millions on his e-mail “contacts— list, the legislation still has to come out of Washington.
He knows it’s a problem.
“I’m confident that we’re going to get it done,— Obama said Thursday at an event in Bristol, Va., devoted to health care reform. “And we’re going to get it done because of you, and because I think the American people — even though sometimes they’re a little suspicious of what goes on in Washington — you know, recognize that when we meet a challenge, we don’t shy away from it.—
Whatever concerns people have about Washington were not mitigated by Obama’s election. Surveys indicate that people do not yet see the changes Obama promised, suggesting they still doubt Washington’s ability to accomplish something positive.
In a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released last week, 85 percent said Congress was either as partisan as it had always been or more so. Most spread the blame equally among Republicans and Democrats.
White House officials acknowledge the necessity to change the public’s perception of Washington and note that Obama’s effort to do so is up against decades of what they perceive as business as usual on issues like health care.
“What you have heard the president saying is that change wouldn’t be easy and it wouldn’t happen overnight,— said one White House official.
White House strategists have Obama emphasizing that changes in the health care system would benefit average people.
“You’re starting to see the promise of changes that actually benefit small business and patients for a change as opposed to changes benefiting special interests,— the White House aide said. “The president understands why people have been cynical or skeptical about Washington’s ability to get thing done, and he was elected to bring these changes and that’s what we’re seeing.—
But, with skepticism of the government still high, Obama has not yet convinced enough people to discard the discomfort they may have over more government involvement in the health care system.
Though an outsider, the heart of his plan — a public insurance option — would expand the power of the city he campaigned against. And, according to polls and the president himself, that seems to be making many people uncomfortable.
“I also think one of the choices that you should be able to choose from is what’s called the public option,— Obama said in Bristol. “Now this has gotten a lot of people riled up.—
The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed the public equally divided on the public insurance option. Other polls showed a higher percentage still favor including the government option.
The Wall Street Journal/NBC polling also shows a concern that the public option would limit access to health care. Overall, respondents opposed Obama’s health care plan by 42 percent to 36 percent.
But Obama’s problems have less to do with the national picture than with the political environment in conservative areas that elected Democrats.
Earlier in the year, noting Democratic control of the House, Senate and White House, Obama said, “The stars are aligned— to pass health care overhaul.
But this has proved potentially illusory. If the support for Obama’s plans is equivocal nationwide, it is certain to run against him in states represented by moderate Democratic Senators balking at Obama’s proposals and in the districts represented by Blue Dogs who were griping about the House bill Obama backs.
It is probably no coincidence that Democratic Senators most avidly seeking the cover of GOP support for a health bill — such as Finance Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.), Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) — are from red state territory.
Other polling suggests general concern about expanding the government’s role in the economy. In a GW Battleground poll, also released last week, 57 percent agreed with the following statement: “With the government taking control of big companies like General Motors, we are on a path to socialism style government.—
Obama will continue to travel the country broadcasting his message on health care to average voters, White House aides say. And having a Bud Light in the Rose Garden, making sudden trips with Vice President Joseph Biden to grab some burgers, and eating a peach in the supermarket in Bristol help paint Obama as a man of the people who is not beholden to Washington.
But the legislation will still get written here.