In Washington, the conventional wisdom says that President Obama has spent his last nickel of political capital. His quick and substantial action to steady the financial markets, stimulate the economy, reset the war in Afghanistan, and, most of all, to reform health care, have all been bold and, to varying degrees, controversial. These mega-battles have left his political allies exhausted and his political coffers bare. His approval rating has steadily bled to an all-time Obama low. The outlook for 2010, the CW says, is for no further action in Congress and a grim midterm election for Democrats.
But such thinking fundamentally misunderstands the nature of political capital - it isn't spent on big initiatives, it's gambled. Right now, the President may appear to have a meager stack of chips in front of him, but it's because his entire bankroll is in the pot. And as it turns out, he's holding a couple of aces.
If, as expected, a health care bill becomes law in the next month or so, the President and congressional Democrats will have accomplished something truly extraordinary: fundamental reform of the health care system. They will have done so despite the crushing demands of the Great Recession, a faltering war, and countless other unwelcome legacies of the disastrous Bush presidency.
After he signs that bill, our Gambler-in-Chief will rake in a gigantic pile of chips. His numbers may not be back to where he was when he began, flush with his historic victory - after all, the President has had a lot of tough hands to play in his first year. But after his health care win, Obama will own the table. He will be able to pivot away from the rancor and taunting and divisiveness of the health care debate, focus the country on the many upsides of health care reform, and move on to other priorities.
When Obama once again becomes the chip leader, it will have two major implications for 2010. First, it will allow him to undertake some more major policy initiatives, rather than simply hunker down and wait for November. Second, it will give his party a real political boost heading into the first midterm elections of his presidency.
Many pundits now argue that the remainder of Obama's legislative agenda will be a "victim" of health care reform's success. They predict that Democrats will be so tuckered out by the health debate that they will simply hide in their offices and refuse to come out for the rest of the year.
Maybe. But gamblers who are winning often stay at the table. So the success of health care should give Democrats' other legislative priorities a boost, especially those that focus on economic growth. That means that in 2010, the White House and Congress could take additional action on the economy, with major legislation aimed at tackling unemployment; enact substantial energy reform, which will help create a clean energy jobs; and begin to tackle the crushing deficit problems, with an entitlement reform commission.
To be sure, all of this remains a gamble. In a time where procedural votes are held up by right-wing Senate cranks and even Republican moderates join almost every filibuster, none of these policy initiatives will be easy to enact. But at the very least, the President will be in able to take the chips from his health care win and lay down a series of markers on his other large ambitions.
The other major benefit of a health care win will be a change in the political outlook for Democrats. Voters will respond to the evidence that all of this activity in Washington finally is going to make a real difference in their lives, and the anti-incumbent anger that pollsters are now seeing is likely to subside.
Moreover, America loves a winner. Success will mean that the President's popularity will move upward, which, as many observers recently have noted, is the most important single factor in determining the outcome of midterm elections. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee even has a PowerPoint presentation showing the enormous implications of the president's job approval rating on his party's fortunes in the midterms. And the numbers don't have to move very much - Obama does not need to return to the stratospheric ratings of his post-inaugural period. Indeed, if the President's approval is above 50 percent in the polls, where it was for most of 2009, the midterm losses for Democrats should remain at a manageable, historical average, helping them to retain their majorities and avoid the blowout that many have predicted.
If the President is looking for comfort on his all-in strategy, he should know that all Presidents are, at least to some extent, gamblers. The best are the ones who find the right balance between betting big and betting well. Those who wager too cautiously, like George H.W. Bush, are seen as caretaker presidents, accomplishing little. Those who gamble recklessly, like his son, are seen as failures.
But those who bet aggressively and win are history's card sharks. Lyndon Johnson proved that large bets can pay off with other legislative wins - he wagered every ounce of his political capital to drive the civil rights and voting rights bills through a Senate dominated by racist boll weevils. His victories then gave him momentum to enact the major items of his Great Society agenda, including Medicare, education, disease, and conservation funding. And from the right, Ronald Reagan gambled boldly on his 1981 tax cut. Say what you will about "Reaganomics" (and I think it was a policy disaster), his legislative win likely helped him preserve every endangered Republican Senate seat and stave off major House losses in the 1982 midterms.
It's too soon to know for sure, but right now, President Obama is looking like one of those winners. He made a major play on health care reform, and when 60 Senators shuffled in from the snow at 1:00 a.m. on December 21 and voted for the bill, they gave him a full house.
Matt Bennett is Vice President for Public Affairs at Third Way, a progressive think-tank.
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