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What commentators viewed as President Obama's most aggressive remarks at Thursday's health care summit may turn out to be his most hazardous. "The question I'm going to ask myself and I ask of all of you is, is there enough serious effort that in a month's time or a few weeks' time or six weeks' time we could actually resolve something?" he said in wrapping things up. "And if we can't, then I think we've got to go ahead and make some decisions, and then that's what elections are for."
Yes, the president set a deadline of sorts. He put Republicans on notice that he would not let health care consume his second year as it had his first. But, in the current environment, six weeks is a long time. Republicans will surely hold him to it, for they've got everything to win, nothing to lose. Anxious Democrats will be six weeks closer to perilous midterm elections, six weeks more nervous that a vote for controversial health reform will prove politically fatal. With the White House and Congress now set to grapple with health care for six more weeks, the issue will dominate the headlines from Washington for that much longer – at a time when most Americans are increasingly focused on the economy and jobs. That will cement growing perceptions that the majority party in Washington is out of touch, unresponsive to what concerns voters.
So, why did Obama do it? Because he wanted to appear reasonable and open-minded, to show independent voters that he wants to find a bipartisan path to progress and, if he can't follow one, it's not for lack of trying. Politically, he's between the rock of his liberal base that wants partisan legislation and the hard place of independents who want bipartisanship. Yes, he surely wants to re-energize his base, hopefully for this year's elections but surely for his own re-election in 2012. But he must reassure independents – the center of gravity in U.S. politics – that he seeks less confrontation and more cooperation. The message of his closing remarks was designed to touch both groups – to make clear that he wants health reform, but to express interest in a bipartisan version.
By appealing to both constituencies, however, the president may have reduced the chances of success with either. In six weeks, he may find himself with no progress on the bipartisan front and with fewer Democratic votes for a go-it-alone approach.
Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.