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Aides to President Barack Obama are putting the final touches on a new strategy to help Democrats recover from a brutal August recess by specifying the components of a compromise health-care deal, and directly and publicly confronting other trouble spots, West Wing officials tell POLITICO.
“We’re entering a new season,” senior adviser David Axelrod said in a telephone interview. “It’s time to synthesize and harmonize these strands and get this done. We’re confident that we can do that. But obviously it is a different phase. We’re going to approach it in a different way. The president is going to be very active.”
Obama is considering detailing his health care demands in a major speech as soon as next week, when Congress returns from the August recess.
Top officials privately concede the past six weeks have taken their toll on Obama's popularity. But they also see the new diminished expectations as an opportunity to prove their critics wrong by signing a health care law, showing progress in Afghanistan, and using this month's anniversary of the fall of Lehman Brothers to push for a crackdown on Wall Street.
White House officials say Obama will be “more prescriptive” in shaping the final health care deal. Although House leaders have said their members will demand the inclusion of a public insurance option, Obama has no plans to insist on it himself, the officials said.
“We have been saying all along that the most important part of this debate is not the public option, but rather ensuring choice and competition,” an aide said. “There are lots of different ways to get there.”
Some administration officials welcome a showdown with liberal lawmakers if they argue they would rather have no health care law than an incremental one. The confrontation would allow Obama to show he is willing to stare down his own party to get things done.
The timing, format, venue and content of Obama's presentation are still being debated in the West Wing. Aides have discussed whether to stick to broad principles, or to send specific legislative language to Capitol Hill. Some hybrid is likely, the officials said.
“I’m not going to put a date on any of this,” Axelrod said. “But I think it’s fairly obvious that we’re not in the second inning. We’re not in the fourth inning. We’re in the eighth or ninth inning here, and so there’s not a lot of time to waste.”
It’s doubtful Obama will dictate a highly specific plan, in large part because he has put so much emphasis on congressional input, but also in recognition of the big divides that remain. This could keep Obama playing defense, because Republicans say they are committed to killing any deal and painting any plan, almost regardless of details, as a risky gamble on government intervention. The president is also likely to remain smack in the middle of a tense internecine fight over the size and content of the final deal. It’s not clear the emerging strategy will fix any of this.
“I understand the governing wisdom here in town as to where this is right now,” Axelrod said. “I feel good about where it is right now. I understand that there’s been a lot of controversy. I understand that there’s been a lot of politics. But the truth is we’re a lot closer to achieving something than many thought possible. People look to the president for leadership on this and other issues. He feels passionately about this, and you can look for him to provide that leadership.”
Obama has been criticized for deciding to cede much of the debate to Capitol Hill — or, as Axelrod put it, “allow Congress to consider the whole range of ideas.”
“History will judge whether this was right or it was wrong,” Axelrod said. “We feel strongly that it was right. As a result of it, we have broad consensus over 80 percent of this stuff, and a lot of good ideas about how to achieve the other 20. Now, people are looking to the president and the president is eager to help lead that process of harmonizing these different elements and completing this process so that we can solve what is a big problem in the lives of the American people, for our businesses and our economy.”
White House officials say they are looking forward to "a break from the August break" -- a chance to take back control of the debate after a grim month where news coverage of the issue was dominated by vocal, emotional opponents at lawmakers’ town meetings, railing against the cost and complexity of the plans being debated.
So Obama and Democrats will return from vacation wounded, divided and uncertain of the best way to turn things around. Many Democrats, especially in the House, were spooked over break by the rowdy town hall meetings and flurry of polls showing independent voters skeptical of their leadership and spending plans.
The mood swing is hitting some top leaders hard: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), for instance, is trailing little known GOP contenders in his re-election race now. The news swing has been no less brutal. There has been saturation coverage of the town halls and rising casualties in Afghanistan -- the latter leading to a big drop in support for the war.
All of this makes for a tumultuous -- and wildly unpredictable -- fall for Obama and his party.
Axelrod said he isn’t worried. “Part of it is born of long experience,” he said. “In Washington, every day is election day. I’d be lying to you if I told you I don’t look at polls. I do. But I’ve also learned that you have to keep your eye on the horizon here and not get bogged down.”