Comeback Kid

Anyone Who Counts Obama Out Hasn’t Reckoned on His Survival Skills

The president has proved his knack for surviving political and governmental crises time and again.

11.17.13 10:45 AM ET

It’s been a week of football metaphors in politics. President Obama said this week that the administration “fumbled” the health care rollout. A lot of folks believe that this turnover is decisive, handing the ball to Republicans in Congress and opponents of health reform with the second half well underway. And now we’re starting to see frightened Democrats on the sidelines hovering over Obama like uneasy linemen, wondering if their QB has enough left in him to turn the game around.

Not me. I’ve seen this game–and this particular quarterback–far too many times before. And as sure as I know never to count out Peyton Manning when he’s down by a couple scores heading into the fourth quarter, I never bet against Obama when the press and pundits have declared game-over. It rarely, if ever, is--this guy knows how to win.   

It started early. A young state legislator with a really odd name decided to run for United States Senate against better-funded primary opponents, including a comptroller, Dan Hynes, who hailed from one of the most prominent families in Illinois politics.  The result? A landslide primary and general election victory, breaking records in the state.

And don’t forget 2007. When we look back at Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign now, we think of the soaring acceptance speech in Denver and the Iowa caucus victory and the triumph of election night in Chicago’s Grant Park. But I was there in the summer and fall of 2007, when almost every smart pundit in the country thought that Barack Obama was charbroiled toast. He was too “arugula” for Iowa. He wasn’t “black enough” to win South Carolina. And his former pastor had surely taken white voters across the country off the table. That was a long, hot summer and fall, a confidence-sapping time to work on the campaign. At times it seemed like the only people at the top tier of politics who really thought he was going to win were Senator Obama himself and those who knew him best, folks like David Plouffe, David Axelrod, and Valerie Jarrett. But Obama would keep calm, and tell his staff to chill out, and get back to work. And we know how that election turned out.

The comeback-kid phenomenon wasn’t just limited to campaign politics. Time and again in the White House, we’ve seen President Obama bounce back, and the country with him. Remember early 2009, when the economy was still in the tank and folks thought it was going to stay there? When the Dow bottomed out in March of that year, and Republicans were pointing to lack of confidence in “socialist” Obama as the reason, and General Motors was on the verge of collapse? It’s hard to remember those dark days now, with a resurgent auto industry and stocks at all time highs. But there were a whole lot of people crying “fumble” then, too.

Or how about the oil spill of 2010, another supposed “Obama’s Katrina” moment, one that we’ve almost forgotten about because of a difficult--but effective--public/private response? Or the bloodbath midterm elections of that year, and Scott Brown’s surprising win, which supposedly spelled doom for the president’s reelection? Or the 2011 debt-ceiling debacle, or the credit downgrade, or the high gas prices in 2012, with Republicans were standing at gas stations taunting the president and asking voters to send him back to Illinois? And don’t get me started on the first presidential debate; if you left it up to the talking heads then, President Obama should have resigned before he left the stage.

This is a president, and a country, who have been counted out more times than we remember, and bounced back in ways we quickly forget. The reality is, if we take the long view, we’ll see that our country has been on an upward trajectory over the last 5 years–a slowly improving economy, a steadily progressing education system, advances in immigrant rights and housing and unemployment, and yes, health care–even if there have been significant challenges along the way.

Now we’re at a moment when, on the road to a health care system where insurance companies will have to treat consumers with a basic level of fairness and better insurance will hopefully be available to more people, we’ve hit another very rough patch.  We’ve got to get this glitchy website fixed, and we’ve got to make sure consumers have clarity about what plans they can have, and how to get them.

That is a big, complicated problem, but it’s fixable. Especially when we have a quarterback who knows how to turn the game around when his back is against the wall. The ball may have been fumbled, and momentum may be in the other direction. But if history tells us anything, it’s this: the smart money’s on the gray-haired, steady-handed guy in the White House, who has been down this field a few times before.