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A Tough Fall Ahead for Obama

5 years ago
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Several months ago, I ran into a top Treasury Department official at the White House. He was there for a health care reform forum. In the middle of toiling 24/7 on the stimulus package and the assorted bailouts, he said, it was a relief to take a few hours off from rescuing the economy to tend to the troubled health care system. Who would have guessed, he remarked, that health care would be the easy stuff?

That was then. And as President Barack Obama and the First Family headed off to a soggy Martha's Vineyard this past weekend, I recalled my encounter with this senior administration aide and thought, if Obama considered this summer tough, just wait for the fall.

Health Care, Part Deux will open once Congress returns to Washington. While Democrats have mostly given up on the prospect of working out a deal with Republicans, that doesn't mean it will be a breeze for them to craft a bill on their own. Democrats in the House and Senate are still fighting among themselves over key components of the bill. "We think we can get a public option with mainly just Democrats," says a senior Democratic aide in the Senate, referring to a government-run insurance plan that would compete with private plans. But there are several Dems -- especially Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota -- who are digging in their heels and pushing for cooperatives (which few people seem to understand).

The Senate Democrats are inching toward exploiting a parliamentary maneuver known as "reconciliation" to achieve health care reform. Under reconciliation, they can pass a bill with 51 votes -- meaning they would need no GOP backers and could even lose some of their more conservative colleagues. This will enrage GOPers. But it's no silver bullet. That Democratic Senate aide tells me that if the Dems do choose the reconciliation path, several key provisions will still require 60 votes to be incorporated into the package. And Conrad, no fan of reconciliation, has said that a bill produced through this process would be so full of holes "you'd be left with Swiss cheese."

Thanks to an agreement the Senate Democratic leadership previously cut with Conrad, the Senate Democrats can't use reconciliation to move health care legislation forward until after Oct. 15. Unfortunately for the White House, this means critics will have plenty of time to take more potshots at Obama's overhaul effort and to cook up new misleading attacks. ("Hey, it's government-run Soylent Green!")

So Obama is in for weeks of tough-slogging on health care. But there's more. As the summer's health care debate continues into the fall, the president will also have to contend with other fundamental challenges. To name two: climate change and Afghanistan.

On a close vote in the spring, the House passed comprehensive climate change legislation -- which included a controversial cap-and-trade plan to limit carbon emissions -- but the Senate has been dragging its feet. That's a big problem for the administration, for in December the nations of the world are gathering in Copenhagen to draft a new climate change treaty. If the United States, the historic record-holder in greenhouse gas emissions, shows up with little in its hands, then American negotiators will have a rather difficult time persuading China, India and other major spewers of carbon to slow, let alone reverse, their emissions. Given that some scientists believe the level of human-made carbon in the atmosphere is reaching a point of no return, this Copenhagen session may truly be humanity's last chance to reach an accord that prevents severe climate change. Obama will not be able to duck a debate on climate change in the weeks ahead. Unless he wants to be accused of bailing on the issue at a crucial moment, he will have to push forward. And the ups and downs of the health care fight probably have not made it any easier for him on this front.

As for Afghanistan, on Sunday, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that conditions there were "deteriorating." And it's no secret that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new American commander, is considering asking for even more U.S. troops for operations in Afghanistan. (Offensives there tend to occur in the spring.)

Ever since George W. Bush and Dick Cheney led the United States into Iraq, Afghanistan has been the "other war." Yet that is changing, especially as U.S. troops depart Iraq and Obama claims ownership of the Afghanistan war and pursues a new strategy there (which also covers Pakistan). At some point, Afghanistan will become a bigger deal in the national debate. It's possible a development -- say, a Taliban attack of some sort -- will trigger a fuss here. Or there could be a political crisis in Kabul that draws attention from the U.S. public. After all, the just-completed election in Afghanistan is unlikely to produce a significant change of leadership in a corruption-ridden government that Obama earlier this year criticized as "detached." Already, liberal Democrats in Congress and others are asking, what exactly are we doing there? And some conservatives and Republicans might turn to Afghanistan to develop another demagogic line of attack on Obama. In the coming months, it's likely that Obama will increasingly have to justify his Afghanistan policy, and if there are further troop increases, he will have to mount a PR offensive to defend such a move.

This all adds up to one busy autumn schedule for Obama, who could well be forced to go on a spending spree of political capital. (The real world also has a way of tossing unanticipated crises and events at the occupant of the White House.) He, the wife, and his kids should truly enjoy his days off this week.

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