POLITICS
09/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dems Who Backed Obama Tripping Up Reform

As the Obama administration tries to maneuver its health care agenda through Congress, its objective has been complicated by a bit of political irony. Two of the main senators pushing against the president's preferred public option for insurance coverage are also some of the earliest supporters of then-Sen. Obama's presidential campaign.

Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) endorsed Obama on December 29, 2007, and January 12, 2008, respectively. When Conrad offered his support, Obama had yet to win the Iowa Caucus and was still regarded as something of a long shot candidate. Nelson's endorsement, meanwhile, came after Obama lost New Hampshire to Sen. Hillary Clinton -- a critical moment during the campaign when it seemed as if the gains in Iowa had been lost.

A year and a half later, Nelson and Conrad are playing a decidedly different role. Nelson is one of a handful of Democratic senators who remains opposed to a public health care plan. Conrad, meanwhile, has grown increasingly vocal in his advocacy for a co-operative approach to health insurance, insisting that a public option doesn't have the votes for passage.

Obama, so far, has refused to dismiss these arguments outright or insist that a public option be included in insurance coverage. He has also been critical of progressive groups for running ads against recalcitrant Democrats on the matter. Nelson has been among the most targeted.

All of which raises the question: How much are the endorsements Obama received during the heat of the campaign affecting his approach to the equally feverish health care debate?

"This president survived the longest and toughest primary in modern American history," said longtime strategist Paul Begala. "You never forget the people who came early, but especially in this case. I still remember the same people who signed up with Bill Clinton in 1991 when we were carrying our bags on Delta."

"It works the other way though," Begala added. "People tend to support the things they helped create. These senators want to see Obama succeed. That's why they endorsed him."

Other political veterans agreed with Begala. It's impossible to simply dismiss an endorsement's significance, said Steve Elmendorf, a long time political practitioner and head of Elmendorf Strategies. At the very least, he said, it grants the senators a more favorable audience in the White House: "Politicians are people too. They remember these things."

But an endorsement entails more than a simple quid-pro-quo. It also symbolizes a personal closeness and something of a shared political ethos.

"It is a sign of the relationship the two of them have," Elmendorf said. "Conrad developed a relationship where he liked him enough to endorse him. The endorsement came early and at a critical time, so Obama is going to listen to him."

The administration has given hints that it still values these endorsements. When Conrad declared this past week that co-ops were the only way to go forward in the Senate, the White House trod carefully in its response, even thanking him for his earlier support.

"I'm not familiar with the interview that Senator Conrad did," Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told MSNBC. "Obviously, we have a lot of respect for him. He was one of first guys on board in the presidential campaign and we certainly appreciated his support back then, but the president is committed to finding all the ideas that are out there that can help to bend the cost curve because if we don't -- right now, thousands and thousands of Americans, every single day are losing their health care."

To be sure, some Democrats who have soured on the public option either didn't endorse Obama during the campaign or offered their support very late. And the White House has been hesitant to push these lawmakers too hard as well.

Moreover, had Conrad not endorsed Obama so early in the campaign, it stands to reason that Obama would still be taking a friendly and cautious approach. Conrad chairs the influential budget committee while sitting on the equally important finance committee. But the endorsement, even for those who downgrade its significance, clearly has brought a bit of baggage.

"All of those relationships matter," said Norm Ornstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "But what matters as much as anything is Obama having been in the Senate and [Joe] Biden having been in the Senate. They have an appreciation for Conrad's savvy and respect him. Even if he had been a Hillary Clinton supporter or a Chris Dodd supporter, I'm not sure it would change much."

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