It's make-or-break time for President Obama and the Democrats. They served notice last week that, despite doubts and opposition from the public and the GOP, they are going for broke to win passage of a massive healthcare overhaul.
A perfect storm seems to be gathering over what many Americans consider the capital's dysfunction and hubris, and the healthcare plan is, for many, Exhibit A. Obama and his congressional allies have pushed the issue for a year, with no final result, creating an image of futility and over-reaching. Some of the problem is internal. Democrats have been unable to compromise on the House and Senate's conflicting bills, even though they control both chambers.
But last week, the president signaled that he wants Congress to finally finish. "Now is the time to make a decision," Obama declared, advocating for the controversial procedure known as "reconciliation," which requires only a 51-vote Senate majority instead of the regular supermajority of 60 votes. "At stake right now is not just our ability to solve this problem but our ability to solve any problem," he said. "The American people want to know if it's still possible for Washington to look out for their interests and their future. They are waiting for us to act."
It may be a long wait. The forces of gridlock and polarization remain powerful. Republicans, for example, argue that Obamacare is expensive and intrusive, and polls show most Americans agree, so the GOP won't budge.
"This is a defining moment," says Bill Galston, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution. Galston, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, adds: "I lived through the experience of working for a year" trying to win passage for healthcare reform at the start of Clinton's presidency. That effort failed, undermining the Democrats' argument that they could govern effectively. "The results were pretty catastrophic," Galston recalls. Democrats proceeded to lose control of both the House and Senate in 1994. Party leaders fear that a similar outcome may await them in November if they come up short on healthcare.
But healthcare is only part of Washington's problem. Every few days, there seems to be a new case of dysfunction and deadlock that demonstrates the growing distance from everyday America plaguing both parties. Take the strange episode involving Jim Bunning. The GOP senator from Kentucky used a parliamentary maneuver to single-handedly block legislation to extend unemployment insurance and health benefits for thousands of people. Bunning said that he wanted the extensions to be paid for so they wouldn't add to the deficit. But his critics angrily denounced him for picking the wrong way to dramatize his point and for being obstructionist while Americans suffered. Bunning relented after a few days. But for many, the affair gave Washington another black eye, making it seem to be a place where personal agendas and compulsions too often overwhelm common sense.
Or take the allegations against New York Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, who stepped aside as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee amid charges that he violated congressional rules in accepting corporate freebies. Rangel says he didn't break any laws and argued that he will be vindicated. But the incident revived the image of Washington as an ethical swamp.
There is also the backbiting aimed at White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Critics say that he is too much of a Washington insider and has lost touch with Obama's campaign appeal as an outsider. Allies see Emanuel as a voice of reason who knows how to get things done and whose advice President Obama has unwisely ignored. The tug of war over Emanuel's role is a familiar Washington story. When a president runs into trouble, his chief of staff often encounters this kind of second-guessing and sniping.
Finally, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's overwhelming victory in a GOP gubernatorial primary was another warning for the Establishment. Perry's campaign portrayed his opponent, longtime Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, as a Washington insider. His big win serves notice that congressional incumbents could have a problem this fall if the anti-Washington fever intensifies.
Perhaps the biggest outrage for voters is that while the titans of national politics debate healthcare and other secondary issues, not enough is being done about most people's top priority: jobs. The seemingly endless healthcare debate looks like another case of misplaced priorities, a metaphor for out-of-control and isolated government. Voters seem to be losing patience.