President Obama got some good news this week. His nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court was approved by the Senate on a 68 to 31 vote. She is the first Latina on the high court, and her confirmation is a definite victory for the new administration.
But Sotomayor's approval masks some serious problems for Obama. In short, he is in a summer slump.
His first priority, legislation to overhaul the health-care system, is still running into trouble on Capitol Hill. The House Energy and Commerce Committee achieved a shaky compromise on one version of the bill last week, and the Senate Finance Committee appears to be making progress in reaching agreement between a small group of Democratic and Republican negotiators on itsversion of reform. But Congress is far behind the schedule that the president optimistically set earlier this year. He wanted the full House and Senate to approve massive healthcare bills by early August. That won't happen. In fact, the House and Senate are moving in different directions as they hammer out separate measures, and the fate of reform remains in jeopardy.
White House spokesman Bill Burton says that congressional negotiators agree on 80 percent of healthcare overhaul. But even if that sunny assessment turns out to be accurate, finding agreement on the remaining 20 percent presents a formidable obstacle. There is no consensus on fundamentals such as whether to provide a government-sponsored alternative to private insurance, whether to mandate that employers offer health insurance to their workers, and how to pay for expanding coverage.
More generally, public doubts are rising about whether majority Democrats in Congress and President Obama can get their act together and govern effectively. And Obama sometimes seems more of a bystander than a leader in shaping the details of legislation. The latest George Washington University poll found that 51 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, and Obama's job-approval rating is now at 53 percent, a substantial drop from over 60 percent a few weeks ago. A Quinnipiac poll released today shows his approval rating even lower at 50 percent. One big reason is that the recession continues to hit hard. The unemployment rate is 9.5 percent and likely to increase to over 10 percent later this summer.
Equally important, Obama stumbled over the issue of race in mid-July when he criticized the Cambridge, Mass., police for acting "stupidly" in arresting his friend, Harvard scholar Henry Gates Jr., for disorderly conduct at Gates's home. Faced with a firestorm of criticism for taking sides prematurely, Obama pulled back two days later and said that both the police and the professor had overreacted. He admitted that he had "ratcheted up" the controversy and offered a mea culpa to the country. He met privately with Gates and arresting officer James Crowley over beers at the White House last week in what appeared to be a "Kumbaya" moment designed to demonstrate a spirit of conciliation. The episode showed that Obama, who places great stock in his choice of words, is capable of making embarrassing verbal stumbles.
Still, Obama presses on. "It's so obvious that the [healthcare] system we have isn't working well for too many people and that we could just be doing better," he told retirees at an AARP forum last week. He also told a town meeting in North Carolina that he inherited a horrendous economy from George W. Bush's administration and that it will take a while to set things right.
White House aides say his current difficulties amount to little more than a bump in the road caused by Congress's normal balkiness at making tough decisions. The aides say Obama's agenda will be on track again this fall when the Democratic majority in Congress gets back to healthcare after the August congressional recess. He will have plenty of time to continue arguing his case before the public and to twist some more arms on Capitol Hill.
But Obama is now facing something he hasn't had to deal with in his first six months: the prospect of massive failure. The president's task is to figure out how to jump-start his agenda and fulfill the promise of change that helped him win the White House in the first place.