Another Long, Hot Summer

Summers are rarely kind to American Presidents. Despite Congress being in recess and Washington slowing to a quiet crawl, it is in August when issues heat up and boil over and when presidents appear to lose control of their agenda.

With media no longer focused on events in the capitol, news becomes more diffuse and less manageable by even the most capable White House professionals. In this context, ferment becomes the story of the day and presidents are forced to struggle to gain control over issues and define their message.

This has been the case, more often than not, in the 18 years that I have been writing this weekly dispatch. It was true for George H.W. Bush. It was true for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. And now it is Barack Obama who must contend with the perils of a long hot summer.

Brushing aside, for the moment, the manifestations of deeper social discontent that exploded (and were callously exploited) a few weeks back, there are substantive issues challenging this President that are being debated across the country. Two, in particular, make clear the difficulties he is facing.

The principle topic of concern, of course, is the debate over health care reform. The Congressional town meetings and conference calls, now matched by sessions organized by the White House, are of historic proportions, involving more Americans than I can recall in an open debate on an issue of national importance. The organized and, to some extent, manufactured disruptions that characterized the first weeks of these gatherings have given way to a more substantial, though at times still testy, discussion of the problems facing the US health care system. By now hundreds of meetings have been held with Members of Congress and Senators hearing the concerns, debating the fine points of policy and answering the questions of tens of thousands of constituents.

At first, advocates of reform had to contend with a series of bogus issues created, and cruelly exploited, by opponents–”that under Obama: health care would be rationed, older citizens would be euthanized to cut costs, citizens would be forced to surrender their current health care plans and be subjected to a government run program, etc. These myths have, for the most part, been debunked and the debate has moved on to issues of the cost of reform and whether or not creating a “public option” to compete with private insurance companies is the best way to promote cost-cutting competition and provide greater access to insurance for those who are currently without a health care plan.

It is here, in this real debate over costs and the “public option,” that the President faces a dilemma. He, like most Democrats, has supported a public program, but efforts to create a bi-partisan compromise bill in both the House and Senate preclude such a “public option” since Republicans are loathe to support any expansion of government that would compete with the private sector.

Eliminating the “public option” may win a few Republican votes for health care reform, but will, in all likelihood, result in the loss of support of many liberal Democrats who see the “public option” as central to the entire health care reform effort.

On the other hand, should the President embrace the plan promoted by liberal Democrats, he runs the risk of not only forgoing Republican support, but also of losing the votes of more moderate Democrats who are concerned with the negative impact increased costs will have on the expanding federal deficit.

Hence the debate.

The “sleeper” foreign policy issue of the summer is neither Iraq nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is Afghanistan, and it is dominating the news as a result of a combination of factors: a dramatic increase in US troop strength, a rising death toll, a contested Afghan Presidential election (featuring a cast of less than compelling candidates), and growing concern over the “logic” of this war and its costs.
All this is causing some unease among liberal Democratic lawmakers. Already feeling tested by what they see as signs of Administration “backsliding” and excessive compromise on domestic issues, progressive Democrats in Congress are threatening to push back.

They’ll have public opinion on their side. Once seen as the “good war,” more favored by the public than the Iraq war, support for involvement in Afghanistan has soured, with recent polls showing a strong majority now opposed to the Afghan war–”including 70% of Democrats.

The stakes are high, especially considering all the other irons the Administration currently has in the fire. Losing in Afghanistan may not be an option, but “winning” has never been clearly defined. And, with American casualties rising, the President runs the risk of losing political support among liberals in Congress–”a group already being tested in the health care debate.

While this may be President Obama’s first summer in the White House, he is no stranger to the trials of August. Just two years ago, Hillary Clinton was seen as the inevitable Democratic nominee. Obama, it was said, could give a great speech and inspire, but his campaign was having difficulty gaining traction. And one year ago, Obama was again down in the polls, his anticipated bump following the Democratic Convention erased by John McCain’s surprise announcement of then Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

In each instance, the mettle of the man was tested, and in each case his ability to inspire, out organize and out maneuver his opponents proved decisive.

Governing is, no doubt, more difficult than running, but a candidate’s performance is a good indicator of his capacity to govern: the ability to define a message and gain control of public perception, the ability to mobilize opinion, and the ability to forge alliances and craft a winning consensus.

Given this, I am betting that when the heat of summer gives way to the hard work of fall we will see real progress on health care reform as well as efforts to craft a new Afghan policy.