For those of you that follow me on Twitter (@dave_in_fla), you may have noticed a few snide tweets over the last few weeks about how stupid Obama was to spend his political capital on the stimulus bill. My point (which is difficult to convey in 140 characters) is that all administrations have only so much political capital, and they have to use it while they've got it. George W. Bush understood this well, which is why he used his on five major initiatives, education, Medicare Part D, tax cuts, Afghanistan and Iraq. Note that Bush also tried to use it after the 2004 election to enact Social Security reform, but failed by over reaching toward a shift toward privatization.
Once political capital is gone, it is gone. You can't get it back unless you win an election, or have a significant event provide you authority to act (such as 9/11 did for Bush). And without that capital, you are unable to enact sweeping structural changes through legislative action. Instead, you have to develop a strong bi-partisan consensus to make changes, something difficult to do when congressional leadership is named Pelosi and Reid.
The next 3 weeks are critical in the Obama Presidency, and mark the final 3 weeks of his first term as measured by major legislative initiatives. If Healthcare is the defining measure of his presidency, then he has made two significant mistakes along the way that are forcing him to achieve success in a short period, or lose.
First, he spent an huge amount of capital on passage of the $797B stimulus package, without becoming personally involved in the details of the legislation. This is unfortunately a hallmark of his personal style. He is disinterested in details, as can be traced back to his short tenure in the Senate. He allowed Congress to draft the package, without any guidance other than "make it big". Congress of course does what it is good at, and used it as a giant earmark package, funding every pet project they had on the table. The end result was a giant package, which Obama made bold claims about, which have produced no visible benefits to the voters in the last 6 months.
Now the passage of the stimulus was not in and of itself a problem for Obama. If he had been ready to push forward with a healthcare overhaul immediately after the stimulus passed, he could have gotten what he wants. However, he was hindered by his two personal foibles; arrogance and laziness. He wasn't willing to take direct action to craft legislation that he could use to guide a quick effort through Congress, instead he fell back on "conscienceness raising seminars" with breakout sessions that are universally used in business to give the appearance of action without actually doing anything. Second, he arrogantly believes in his own personal popularity to the point that he thinks that he will always have a 65%+ approval rating, just cause he is so freaking awesome.
So time went by, and the economy got worse. He allowed 5 months to pass, with mounting unemployment eroding his core support with the voters. It really is irrelevant whether or not his actions are hindering recovery. Laid off employees, their families, and their friends, are going to blame him for their problems, no matter how much he tries to blame Bush. If you track the Rasmussen approval index, there is strong negative correlation between the increase in unemployment and the decrease in the index. He is currently hovering around a -8 on the index, which dropped from around -1 when the June unemployment numbers were announced.
The second critical mistake was Cap and Trade. Obama tried to sneak this one through Congress when they did a vote count and realized they had enough to get it through the House. He gambled that once through the House it could quickly head to the Senate and get approved. This turned out to be a huge mistake, because it provided a rallying cry to opposition that was already disaffected by the lack of results on the economy. Congress was stunned by the level of opposition, and is still reeling from the effects as they go home to their districts and hear from constituents. The Senate wisely noted the firestorm and has tabled the measure until after the August recess. Cap and Trade is now in legislative limbo and will live and die based on the outcome of healthcare.
This brings us to today. Obama squandered his political capital on the stimulus, and activated vocal opposition during Cap and Trade. He now has 3 weeks to try and bully Congress into passing a version of Healthcare that he can claim as his own. The question is will a version without a public option be considered a legislative victory, or a defeat for the administration? It is unlikely, given the current environment, that he can get a package with a public option passed before the August recess. But if he doesn't get something passed before then, the clock will have expired and the game will be over. His personal approval will have dropped below 50% like the approval of his policies already have. His political capital will have been spent. Both cap and trade, and healthcare will be dead legislatively, and he will be forced to deal with the economic mess as the new fiscal year begins.
Obama is facing the end of his presidency, as he knows it. He must win on healthcare in the next 3 weeks, or become effectively a lameduck.