03.14.10

Glutton for Punishment

Even as the bruising health-care battle draws to a close, the Obama White House is pushing an ambitious agenda for the midterm election year. Next up: climate change.

This week marks the final phase of the battle over health-care reform, a fight that has occupied the White House since the earliest days of Barack Obama's presidency. Given the political capital expended on the legislation, the administration could be forgiven for patting itself on the back, talking up jobs creation—and otherwise trimming its sails as it readies for what promises to be a rough midterm campaign.

For a time, in the immediate aftermath of Scott Brown's shocking upset in the special Massachusetts Senate race, that's the road the Obama team seemed to be taking. But lately, the White House is getting ambitious again. Fired up by the health-care fight, the president is suddenly tackling all manner of thorny political challenges—each larger and messier than the last. From revamping No Child Left Behind to overhauling immigration and pressing ahead with financial regulatory reform, the administration is on the offensive—and swinging for the fences.

Even as Republicans howl that the Democrats' determination to push health-care reform through using reconciliation—and effectively going it alone, without the benefit of any GOP support—the White House remains surprisingly confident that they will be able to pick off enough support from the opposition party to move forward on these major issues, even in an election year. A sign of the bullish attitude: Obama is even taking up climate change—an issue on which, after an anticlimactic summit in Copenhagen and a scandal that raised questions about whether advocates were skewing the research, the president would appear to be swimming entirely upstream.

"We were never going to go small," said one senior Obama aide, referring to the Clinton strategy after his party's defeat in the 1994 mid-term elections.

Obama removed any doubt that he's already looking ahead to the post-health care agenda on Saturday, when he used his weekly radio address to introduce detailed plans to overhaul one of President Bush's signature achievements, No Child Left Behind. The administration has been working with a bipartisan group to create new educational standards, including the goal of making all high-school graduates college-ready by 2020. A torpedo aimed at the hull of the Bush legacy doesn't exactly seem like a White House playing defense.

It's still unclear how much help from across the aisle Obama can expect. Over the weekend, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) once again grumbled that the Democrats' intention to use reconciliation to pass health care doomed their chances of getting support for other elements of the Obama agenda the rest of the year. The reconciliation move will "open up Pandora's box," Graham said on ABC's This Week, and "poison the well for anything else they would like to achieve." Graham had uttered similar sentiments last week, after attending a White House meeting on immigration.

But even immigration pales next to the looming debate on another radioactive issue: energy and climate change.

For Obama's aides, climate change offers a unique combination of the challenge of a global crisis with the economic opportunities for job growth, technological innovation, and boosting exports. The issue represents a sharp contrast with the inactivity of the Bush years, as well as a chance to transform several sectors of the U.S. and global economy.

Obama started his effort to win bipartisan support on energy by meeting with 14 senators, including six Republicans, in the Cabinet Room last week to try to find some common ground on the subject. For the White House, the main challenge was whether the president could move beyond the senators backing an energy-only approach to include some element of a cap-and-trade system.

“The most important thing is to find a path forward that preserves the need to put a price on carbon,” said one senior administration official. “That’s what is going to drive the major investment we need.”

"He wants to figure out what people want and what people are willing to discuss and consider, as well as figuring out what the path forward is," said one senior administration official. "The most important thing is to find a path forward that preserves the need to put a price on carbon. At the end of the day, that's what is going to drive the major investment we need to establish new industries and get ahead of China and other countries that are heavily investing in these sectors."

Among the Republicans at the White House climate-change session was Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who has demonstrated his willingness to buck his party's orthodoxy before, having signed up for a fiscal responsibility commission that some of his own Republican co-sponsors had voted against.

The White House kept last week's energy and climate meeting off-camera and away from the press. Instead, Obama's senior aides preferred to focus public attention on a new jobs package that includes help for small businesses.

Obama's continued efforts at bipartisanship on energy and climate legislation is likely to dismay many progressives who consider a waste of time his attempt to win GOP votes on health care.

Even some Obama officials concede that the outreach might not work. "He'll have monthly bipartisan meetings and those will continue," said another senior staffer. "But the Republicans are in a mode of intransigence and if they aren't going to work together, it's going to be difficult to get them on board."

Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.