President Obama comes into this month's Obamacare/government funding debate running 0-for-2 on his recent priorities. His opposition, seeing new polling on the health care measure, is salivating.
Over the course of the summer, the Republicans hoping to use upcoming debates over government funding as a point of leverage to undermine the Affordable Care Act have argued that Obama will cave when push comes to shove. That's unlikely. But you can see why Obamacare opponents would be optimistic, given the president's struggle to manage his base over his call for military strikes on Syria and his presumptive choice to lead the Federal Reserve.
Obamacare — exchanges for which open on October 1 — has the worst possible thing in common with the Syria debate: low public opinion. The chart at right shows the results of a USA Today poll released on Monday. Blue slices indicate support; red slices, opposition. A majority of Americans disapprove of the policy, with people almost twice as likely to say they strongly oppose it as they are to say they strongly support it. Again, the system hasn't broadly gone into effect yet, which is reflected in the 63 percent of respondents who told the paper that it had "not much of an effect" on them.
As the president pushed for a vote on Syria, the public opinion numbers weren't much worse — 36 percent supported unilateral strikes, 59 percent opposed. Initial Congressional whip counts on the strikes (informal tallies of members' possible votes) ran far more against Obama than public opinion, in part because of the composition of the bodies. The embedded, ferocious opposition the president sees on Capitol Hill is much larger than what's reflected in the electorate. Obama's goal in asking Congress to approve the strikes seemed to be, in part, a hope that the Republicans who supported military action in Iraq would join this effort, and he could get enough Democrats through party loyalty to make a majority. It appears that would have been unlikely to happen, largely because the most vocal part of that public opinion was staunchly opposed to any action. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas note that this was the first of two times in as many weeks that public opinion undermined the president's apparent aims, the second being the aborted campaign to install Larry Summers as chair of the Federal Reserve.
The negative spin on this is that Obama is proving indecisive in his second term. Leaders need to lead. Instead, Obama is letting himself be led. If he thought striking Syria was the right thing to do, and appointing Larry Summers made the most sense for the country, then he should've simply made the decision, executed the policy, and sold the American people on the results.
Klein and Soltas go on to suggest that a more generous interpretation of the president's behavior is that, instead of forcing his desires on the country, Obama is trying to ensure long-term support by including public opinion in what he does. Many would call that interpretation very generous. Especially given Vice President Joe Biden's remarks over the weekend in which he said that the Republicans are "a party where the tail is wagging the dog, where [Texas Senator] Ted Cruz is running the show, a freshman, in terms of the ideas of the party." Cruz is certainly an emerging leader in the party — in large part because he is an almost perfect manifestation of the conservative id, a position he cultivates. In other words: Cruz is reflecting the desires and instincts of a large part of the Republican base. That base joined liberal Democrats in opposing action in Syria (for widely divergent reasons), and raised their voices. Cruz may be wagging the GOP — but he's getting wagged, too.
Which brings us back to Obamacare. There are two massive points of political contention which will need to be resolved over the course of the next month. The first is that Congress needs to pass some sort of funding measure ensuring that the government can operate after October 1. The second is that the Treasury is expected to hit the debt ceiling in the middle of October (or perhaps a bit later), at which point it exhausts its ability to pay the bills that Congress has authorized the government to spend. The call from the conservative wing of the party (Cruz included) has been to introduce a funding bill that funds everything except Obamacare, forcing the Democratic-majority Senate to decide whether to pass the bill as-is or to allow the government to shut down. What exactly that tactic looks like has fluctuated (with some proposing that the debt ceiling be used as a way to block or delay Obamacare), but the focal point is the same: use the moment — perhaps the last possible moment — to halt Obama's signature legislation.
With the president's failure to get a quick, supportive vote on Syria and with ongoing sentiment trending against Obamacare, Republicans are more emboldened than ever in thinking Obama will cave in a funding fight. The Hill reports:
“I think the president’s too weak to shut the government down … I think we will win,” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) said.
“Syria has hurt him significantly … it is a factor in the CR going forward, it is a factor in the debt ceiling,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said.
King's political sense isn't always entirely true, but the point is an interesting one: Can Obama hold steady on this issue, in the face of public pressure? Or, of more concern, can the members of his party that balked on Syria and are primarily responsible for the Summers defeat do so? Members of Congress have two choices for political cover on difficult decisions. The first is to use the president's staunch advocacy as the rationalization for a vote (if you share his party). The second is public opinion. As The Post points out, Congress is increasingly unwilling to use party loyalty as a rationalization.
“It’s almost as though it was the end of traditional power,” Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), a fierce Obama supporter, said of rank-and-file resistance to the president and the speaker. “I’ve been here for 20 years, and I’ve never seen so much of a repudiation of the conventional sources of power in the legislative or executive branch.”
“It portends for a much more chaotic fall,” he said.
Politico suggests that it isn't only the public and Congress that's more vocally skeptical of the president: the media, too, has been critical of the president's recent behavior. “I think it is the public and the press reflects the public,” NBC's Chuck Todd told Politico's Dylan Byers. “The NSA started it and he hasn’t recovered.”
Indicating that the president may himself have less cover as the funding debate approaches,which is emerging as a fight or flight situation. Obama's ability to punt Syria to the Russians and to accept the withdrawal of Summers suggests that he's getting ready to fight on Obamacare. He will probably win. But to do so, it would be enormously helpful to turn the tide of opinion on the issue. Quickly.