Obama's new game plan: Be more assertive

President Barack Obama will be more assertive with Congress after disappointing members in his first year with mixed signals during the healthcare debate, Democrats say.

Obama made a crucial mistake not rallying the party behind a detailed healthcare reform proposal earlier in the debate, Democrats in both chambers broadly acknowledge.

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And his handling of the government-run health insurance option, which he at one point signaled support for but ultimately cut from the final legislation, has left a bad taste with liberals in the party.

“All of us would have liked to see it handled differently,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) of the overall healthcare debate. “The failure to have a specific proposal allowed the opponents to paint it in a different way from how we see it. It did give the opponents an opportunity to misrepresent the legislation.”

Cardin and other lawmakers say Obama has learned that it will be necessary to take control sooner on other issues, such as financial regulatory reform and climate change legislation.

“I think he’s going to test the sincerity of bipartisan support for legislation and if he feels he can’t get the broad coalition then I expect he’ll try to usurp more direction earlier,” Cardin said.

In recent weeks, Obama has seized control of the debate. Last week he released his most specific healthcare proposal to date and invited Republicans to the White House for a summit.

Obama sent a letter to Democratic leaders this week calling on them to include some Republican ideas, such as health savings plans, in the final healthcare package. But Republicans remain upset that Obama is prepared to use special budget rules to push significant healthcare provisions through the Senate with only 51 votes.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-Independent from Connecticut, said Obama has felt his way along during his first year.

“It’s the course of someone trying different methods to get things done and adjusting to the political reality of the moment, which is extremely partisan,” Lieberman said. “This is the first year of a four-year term and he’s learning from experience.”

Lieberman described the president as a pragmatic politician who will do what is needed to get things done.

One of his biggest stumbles has come with liberals, who saw the public option as a critical element of healthcare reform.

“He told the unions he was up for it, which was a big boost, but then his staff would put out mixed signals and say it was off the table, “ said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“You get this contradiction that is puzzling and discouraging,” said Grijalva, who explained that Obama sent out mixed signals because “he was trying to walk that center line” between conservatives and liberals in a difficult political environment.

Now that Obama has realized his efforts to appeal to Republicans yielded little progress, Grijalva predicted: “He’s going to become more of that take-charge leader you expect.”

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Obama has shown different sides of his leadership style over the past 13 months.

 The president took a mostly hands-off stance on the $787 billion stimulus package and the healthcare reform legislation.

 Some lawmakers say that was a mistake. Both bills became vehicles for pet projects and priorities of influential lawmakers.

 Liberals expressed dismay that lawmakers added to the stimulus a fix for the Alternative Minimum Tax and other tax cuts to win the support of three Senate Republicans. The Senate healthcare bill suffered a major public-relations hit because of special deals included to win the support of Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Democrats say that Obama needs to use his presidential megaphone more aggressively to get things done.

“I would urge the president to play a very dominant role, to use his bully pulpit and to push,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said last week.

Obama plans to do just that next week, when he will travel to Philadelphia and St. Louis to  stump for the passage of healthcare reform and attempt to put pressure on recalcitrant Democratic centrists to vote with the party.

Lawmakers say Obama needs to be as aggressive in pushing financial regulatory reform and climate change legislation.

“There have been moments when he has been outspoken and assertive on the need for financial reform and other things, but I think it needs to be more consistent and persistent,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.).

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“When it comes to things like taking on Wall Street and financial reform, he’s given one tremendous speech on that,” DeFazio said. “He needs to be doing that every day; he’s got to be in their face and pushing hard.

“We should not be losing the Consumer Finance Protection Agency,” he added, in reference to staunch industry opposition to a tenet of the House financial reform bill.

Lawmakers say Obama must also show strong leadership on climate change legislation, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted last year would prove even more difficult to pass than healthcare reform.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is perhaps the lawmaker closest to Obama, said critics have second-guessed the president’s approach to Congress without knowing important behind-the-scenes details.

“A lot of people who don’t know the inside often criticize him and don’t realize he’s following the direction, sometimes, of the congressional leaders,” said Durbin.

Durbin said Obama has consulted closely with congressional leaders.

“Rahm Emanuel wore a rut in the roads between here and 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.,” Durbin said, referring to the White House chief of staff and his aides. “They were coming up here for meetings, House side, Senate side, late at night and on Sunday mornings.”

Durbin said Obama let Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) negotiate with Republicans for weeks on end in pursuit of a bipartisan healthcare deal because Democratic leaders requested the extra time.

“I think he’s responded to the challenges as he sees them,” said Durbin. “Sometimes it’s a challenge to be patient and wait for Congress to work its will. Other times it’s to be a catalyst for more activity.”