WASHINGTON — Six months into his administration, President Obama is at a pivotal moment. He has pushed through a $787 billion economic stimulus package, bailed out Wall Street and, on Tuesday, managed to beat the defense industry in the Senate, which voted to kill a high-profile fighter jet program.
On Wednesday night Mr. Obama addresses the nation in a prime-time news conference as the public, and lawmakers, are growing skittish over his next big plan, to remake the American health care system. How he handles the issue over the next several weeks could shape the rest of his presidency, shedding light on his political strength, his relationship with both parties in Congress and his appetite to fight for his own agenda.
With some fellow Democrats balking over his insistence that both the House and the Senate pass health legislation before the August recess, Mr. Obama has a tough decision to make: Does he take a hard line, demanding that lawmakers stick to his timetable — and risk losing the support of Republicans and moderate Democrats? Or does he signal flexibility, allowing lawmakers to take their time — and give opponents the chance to marshal their case against the bill?
“He’s got to be careful that while he ratchets up the pressure, he doesn’t bet his whole presidency on whether this gets done before the August recess,” said Kenneth M. Duberstein, who orchestrated President Ronald Reagan’s first-term legislative strategy. “He has a broad, broad agenda that he’s in a rush to enact, and if he’s not careful he will be viewed as a steamroller who tries to get things fast and not necessarily right.”
Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said in an interview that the president intended to use the news conference as a “six-month report card,” to talk about “how we rescued the economy from the worst recession” and the legislative agenda moving forward, including health care and energy legislation, which squeaked through the House and faces a tough road in the Senate.
Polls show that Mr. Obama is more popular than his own policies, a worrisome sign for a president with such an ambitious agenda. Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman who is now vice president of the Aspen Institute, said Mr. Obama might be making a mistake in reading his election as a mandate for dramatic change.
“A lot of people supported Obama because they wanted to repudiate the Bush administration,” said Mr. Edwards, who backed Mr. Obama for president. “I was one of those people who supported him for reasons other than the policies he is proposing. He seemed more thoughtful, more contemplative — I felt he had the right temperament to be president. But I think his health care proposal goes beyond what the public at the moment is ready to accept.”
Mr. Obama came into office promising a more bipartisan Washington tone, which he has so far been unable to achieve. His actions in the coming weeks on health care may determine his long-term relationship not only with Republicans but also with his fellow Democrats.
“I think this will be a major factor in defining his presidency,” said Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader, who remains a close adviser to the White House on health issues. “Because he’s made it such an issue, and because he has invested so much personal time and effort, this will, more than stimulus and more than anything he has done so far, be a measure of his clout and of his success early on. And because it is early on, it will define his subsequent years.”
On the Republican side, one question is whether Mr. Obama will succumb to the temptation to turn health care into a partisan fight, even as he tries to court the opposing party. He is, after all, still a popular new president confronting an unpopular Republican Party, and so it would be easy for him to demonize Republicans as obstructionists who want to stand in the way of progress.
Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, gave Mr. Obama an opening to do just that the other day, and the president took it. Mr. DeMint called health care a “Waterloo moment” that could break Mr. Obama. The president struck back, declaring, “This isn’t about me.” But if Mr. Obama extends that line of attack to Republicans more broadly, and rams a bill through without their support, any claim he may have to bipartisanship will quickly evaporate.
As for Democrats, Mr. Obama faces a balance-of-power conundrum. He has said all along that he will set out broad principles for a bill and leave the details to Congress. But now House Democrats in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, including seven who hold decisive votes on the Energy and Commerce Committee, say they will not support the House bill without big changes.
One question for Mr. Obama is whether to try to strong-arm them, and face a rebellion from some of the very same conservative Democrats who helped put him in office. If he forces them to vote for a bill their constituents do not like, on a timetable that feels too rushed for them, it could hurt them at home. That could mean a bigger political problem for the White House: a resulting loss of Democratic seats in the 2010 midterm elections.
Another question is how hard Mr. Obama will push Congress as a whole to adopt his progressive agenda, not only on health care but also on climate change and a variety of other issues.
The next few weeks, as the president tries to broker a health care deal, may well tell Americans just how far he is willing to go.