I said this last week:

The White House has spent this last year insulating the president from the grit and grime of the health reform battle, thinking that if Obama stayed above the fray, he would be seen as more presidential—or at least would retain that “new car smell” and those lofty approval numbers.

And this week, it seems more and more people are noticing—or, perhaps, more accurately, they noticed a long time ago, but now they feel more comfortable talking about it.

Take, for instance, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who told Sam Stein:

The president was weighing in pretty heavily on the discussions between the House and Senate before the Massachusetts special [Senate] election–it’s dried up since.

Or the Democratic source that told Chris Frates at Politico that during a Thursday meeting between the Democratic caucus and Obama:

Pelosi expressed frustration with the pace of progress and the president’s decision not to weigh in publicly on a way forward, according to the source.

There are also similar leaks and statements about frustrations expressed by Senators Franken (D-MN) and Sanders (I-VT).

And then there’s Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR), appearing earlier tonight on The Ed Show, who was even more explicit:

The White House has really checked out of this debate—I mean, they have not been directive. I mean, the president came to our caucus and in response to one member said he supported the public option. Well that’s great, but where was the bully pulpit in support of the public option? . . . I haven’t seen them deliver at all in this debate. Remember, they started by cutting a deal with the Pharmaceutical industry—couldn’t have been a worse start.

But, in contrast, President Obama made a series of public stops yesterday where he made a point of urging Congress, like he did in his State of the Union, to pass health care legislation. Publicly engaging (after months of what many complained was an obvious absence from the debate) while privately stepping away. Is that a strategy for getting real health care reform, or is that a strategy for getting reelected?

I know what the White House is thinking, but I’ve got news for them: Not only will leaving Congress to “get it done” all by themselves—leaving the House to try to figure out some way to pressure the Senate into making sensible, productive changes—not produce a quality reform bill (or any bill at all), the president will not be insulated from the failure.

I expect the political team at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. thinks that it might be a win-win. Either they get to sign a bill, no matter how ineffectual, and call it a victory, or they don’t get a bill, and can blame obstructionists in Congress or the flawed process during this year’s elections (and 2012, too). But it’s not going to go down that way.

Here’s John Nichols from the same Ed Show segment:

[T]he American people don’t care what a filibuster is, they don’t care what cloture is—there’s a new pew center poll that says that they don’t even know what those things are—what they care about is whether their kids, whether their parents, whether they have health care. And if the Democrats don’t get this—I start with Barack Obama, nobody gets off the hook, Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and the whole Democratic Party—if they don’t get that the issue is health care, not Senate rules, they are going to be beaten awfully badly this fall. They may not lose all their majorities, but they will lose their ability to function, and, in so doing, they will have sacrificed their ability to set this country right, that isn’t just bad politics, that’s bad morality.

The White House still does not seem to understand this, but it looks like many in Congress (such as those quoted above) now do. After a year of avoiding the spotlight—letting Congress work out their health reform plans in public while cutting his own deals in private—the president now tries to appear engaged in front of the cameras while trying hard not to have a hand in either a failed effort or the breaking of some of his secret deals behind the scenes. Instead of “The buck stops here,” Obama is positioning himself for “It’s not my fault.” From “agent of change” to “victim of circumstance.” Is that really how the president wants voters to think of him in November of 2010 or 2012? Is that really how he wants to be seen?

Gregg Levine

Gregg Levine