OFF THE GRID

Has the President Done It? Or Screwed the Pooch?

Dec 28, 09 | 10:24 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Here’s the puzzle: Does imminent passage of a health care bill, however sorely flawed, mean the president is a failure or a success?

Ross Douthat, the former right-wing-ish blogger who, in an unlikely bit of casting, the New York Times elevated to its op-ed page this year, and who has desperately tried not to offend anyone at all—in fact, not to be heard or read at all—tried, as usual, to cover all bases in his Saturday column (the Times gives him the Saturday spot because nobody reads the paper on Saturdays).

The president, said Douthat, is a committed liberal, as lefty as anybody, but a dedicated pragmatist, too, as wily in his realism as Ronald Reagan.

Peggy Noonan offered some similar head scratching: Well, maybe the guy knows what he’s doing.

These are treading-water columns. Douthat and Noonan put their fingers in the air and felt nothing. Having to write about Obama at this particular moment, right on the edge of his great (or hollow) health-care victory, is having to write without any conventional wisdom, or certain talking points.

You could easily pronounced this bill as offensive to the right as to the left, and still see the man’s approval numbers shoot through the roof. That’s the issue: What do his numbers do? Nobody has the faintest idea.

Is the bill a victory, is it a defeat, is it a snooze?

If you’re in the punditry business, you don’t want to be writing the man off (except if your business is specifically, like Limbaugh and the Fox guys, to write the man off) past the point when writing him off is no longer the clever thing to do. Likewise, you don’t want to open a new chapter in the historical re-evaluation of the man if, in fact, he gets no movement in his numbers from the bill.

Anyway, the sound you’re hearing is some real regrouping among Republicans. Maureen Dowd, not so sensitive to Republican angst, was, at the same time Douthat and Noonan were holding their fire, quoting her brother sarcastically crediting the president for single-handedly reviving the Republican Party. Douthat and Noonan are clearly not so sure.

The health care bill could, they sense, be big.

He might have pulled it off.

Liberals have no choice but to embrace what seems destined to be a cockamamie hodgepodge of little logic but vastly expanded coverage, and, it is quite possible, that its cockamamieness, and turgid spirit of compromise, will appeal to independents, too.

On the other hand, he may have lost the liberals. He rather deserves to have lost them. And what the independents tend to not like is the sordid sense of horse-trading and of politics as usual. And then there is the fundamental problem with healthcare legislation: It’s boring. No matter what you do, it isn’t going to be the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, which made Lyndon Johnson, however briefly, an American hero.

The experts don’t know. But I’m sure you do. So, please, before the wind blows, let’s begin to call it. Is he up or down?

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NewserColumns.
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