Obama, Democrats Face a Brighter Political Future

The president and his team feel vindicated after passage of healthcare reform.

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Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi had a credo: "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing." His motto was focused on sports, but it also provides a valuable insight into the way Washington operates, and explains why President Obama's political fortunes are currently on the upswing.

It all goes back to Obama's success in winning passage for the sweeping healthcare reform bill. He signed it into law on March 23 after a fierce debate between Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, and called the legislation "a historic step to enshrine the principle that everybody gets healthcare coverage in this country. Every single person." [See a slide show of 10 things that are (and aren't) in the healthcare bill. ]

Healthcare reform was his top domestic priority, and he spent a year fighting, cajoling, pressuring, prodding, and sweet-talking to push it across the goal line. When the bill finally won congressional approval, Obama and his team felt vindicated. He said the passage was "a testament to the historic leadership—and uncommon courage—of the men and women of the United States Congress, who've taken their lumps during this difficult debate." And Obama said it showed that government can work effectively and that Americans shouldn't lose faith in their elected leaders in Washington. His message was, and remains, that the Democrats, who control Congress and the White House, are the party of governing and the Republicans are the party of carping and criticizing, what his aides call "the party of no."

White House strategists say the win has made a big difference for Obama's presidency. It has boosted morale in the West Wing and among Democrats in Congress and around the country. It has created momentum for Obama and Democrats on other issues, such as financial-industry reform and initiatives for more job-creating programs to ease unemployment. It has given at least some Democrats more confidence that they can stop what had seemed to be a conservative tide running against them across the country.

Obama's supporters also say his reputation as a leader who can master a balky Congress may help him in international affairs, such as encouraging the Russians to accept a new agreement to reduce nuclear weapons. This pact was negotiated over many months but finalized and announced shortly after he signed the healthcare measure. Some of his advisers make the case that Obama might be benefiting from new international respect for his political skills and his personal power at home.

As a senior Republican strategist says, grudgingly, "The coin of the realm for presidents is victory, and this healthcare bill was a historic win for President Obama. If he follows it with another win, it could start an Obama narrative that this is the start of a comeback [from declining job-approval ratings] and that he is delivering on his promises from the campaign and bringing change to Washington."

Adds Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who advised Obama in the 2008 campaign: "The political calculations were, let's not do it," but Obama rejected them despite deep divisions over healthcare within his own party and doubts from the punditocracy about his prospects for success. "We talk about how elected leaders make promises and don't back them up," Belcher observes. "This is a monumental political achievement" in the same league as Social Security and Medicare, which have helped untold millions of Americans in difficult times. "The Republicans say this is Obama's Waterloo, but it's actually his Austerlitz," where Napolean scored a huge victory against enormous odds, Belcher says.

From the start, Obama pushed healthcare reform because it was something he believed in. But his friends say it was also because Obama wanted to be a consequential, transformational president, not just someone who is popular in the moment. And his aides say he will keep pushing for other initiatives until his agenda runs aground on Capitol Hill or until the voters set him back by handing Democrats a defeat in the midterm elections or, on the positive side, until he brings his agenda to fruition.