When last we brought you the pages of The Villanovan, the president of the United States was promising to do big things with health care reform, energy and climate issues, educational reform and economic regulation. That was just for starters.
Other issues that promised to appear on Obama’s agenda throughout the course of his term were immigration, entitlement programs, rapprochement with Iran and North Korea, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and burgeoning problems in Pakistan.
Three months later, Congress is about to return to Washington from its summer recess, Obama’s most important legislative ally Ted Kennedy has died, comprehensive health reform is stalled and that very fact looks to stall the Obama presidency.
Arguments have been proffered for massive reform of the healthcare system as well as for incremental changes that can pass both houses of Congress. What shape the final legislation will take is something no one can predict at this point.
This president has been left for political dead before throughout the course of his career and has somehow managed to reassert his will each time whether it be in the early part of the campaign, after the New Hampshire primary, after the Jeremiah Wright debacle or after the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate.
This time, though, the stakes are much higher and the terms of the argument are much different. The congressional recess has revealed fissures in the coalition that elected Obama as president. It has also revealed a disconcerting trend of reactionary politics developing in this country.
Outside one presidential town hall meeting in New Hampshire, a man had a handgun strapped to his leg and a sign playing on Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase about the tree of liberty needing watering with the blood of tyrants. These are not exactly ideal conditions for discourse and progress.
If a member of Congress returns to his or her home district during the recess and encounters the wrath and ire of constituents while attempting to sell healthcare reform or gauge its viability, it’s not likely that member will return to Washington with a favorable outlook on voting for reform.
This leaves the president in a precarious position. There are a number of legislative tactics he can adopt to ramrod a bill through Congress such as the complicated reconciliation process in the Senate: the abandonment of bipartisanship with the hope that Democratic leaders can whip up the members sufficient to pass the legislation.
None of these are at all desirable for a president who claimed to be post-partisan and whose filibuster-proof majority in the Senate is contingent upon any number of factors and personalities which can very quickly turn against him.
While the president is busy tending to the molasses-like disposition of the Senate, he must also be careful not to alienate the large swath of liberals in the House who have given him a large enough majority to essentially accomplish anything. The inherent tensions and distrust between the two chambers only further complicate the president’s already-entangled political life.
Time and time again, Barack Obama has managed to deliver and managed to maneuver himself away from the precipice of political catastrophe. He needs to convince the Senate and the American people that a public option is palatable while simultaneously wooing the House into believing that his reform package is going far enough.
Navigating the chasm between the two houses of Congress will prove difficult at best and enormously disastrous at worst. A whole lot of Barack Obama’s presidency depends on what happens in the next three months. It’s time for the president to assert himself with Congress and put forward a real proposal of his own, not one crafted in the labyrinth of committee negotiations.
Otherwise, he could very well find himself headed back to Illinois in January, 2013.