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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

No matter how you slice and dice them, Barack Obama’s poll numbers are down. And it’s clear that his health care reform advocacy is contributing to his sagging support. So, herewith, a question for the day: As summer draws to a close, what can we say about Obama’s use of his political capital?

As I see it, there are (at least) four possible explanations we can kick around:

1. Obama came to Washington to spend capital, not hoard it–and that’s exactly what he’s doing. This argument is equivalent to saying Obama is the Democratic George W. Bush, in that he cares less about his numbers and being loved than he does about pushing through his agenda. (Bush famously said upon winning re-election that he had earned some capital in the first election, earned a little more during re-election, and intended to spend it.) Big change is costly, and not just in actual dollars from the Treasury, but in terms of how much of his capital reserves a president is willing to spend to get what he wants. Obama is not plugging for school uniforms, folks. He’s re-regulating Wall Street, trying to stimulate the economy by pumping nearly $1 trillion into it, and attempting to tackle the policy problem too many of his predecessors never could: reforming our messy, complicated health care system. Accordingly, he’s paying the price for even trying.

2. Obama is investing now with an eye toward medium- and long-range returns. Call this the “you’ve got to spend political capital to make political capital” theory, in which Obama knows that the first summer is a good time to make a big investment, with sufficient time to recover his losses and maybe even come out ahead by the 2010 midterms, or at least by the time his own 2012 re-election campaign rolls around. If you have to do health care at some point in the first term, it’s now or never…and so, after taking an initial hit, his capital reserves will slowly rise back to pre-Summer ’09 levels.

3. Obama miscalculated. Riding an initial wave of popularity, the president figured he would be able to push through health care reform at little or no cost to his approval ratings, but miscalculated miserably. That is, he presumed that the relatively blank check given to him for the stimulus and other agenda items was somehow transferable to health care. And now, like a man committed to the wrong investment portfolio, he is chasing bad money with good and doesn’t have the sense to just bail.

4. Obama got mugged. Even smart investors and people with eyes in the back of their heads sometimes get rolled, and Obama is simply the victim of a coordinated series of attacks designed to snatch his political wallet. Americans for Prosperity, Glenn Beck and company knew what they were doing.

OK, let’s do some accounting. Obviously, the first two are the more charitable explanations than the latter two, for even though there can be some blame-shifting for explanation #4, a president still ought to be prepared for attacks of every sort. Frankly, as I consider all four, I’m not sure any of them is alone sufficient to explain what’s going on. There might be a little of each.

The president surely believes in health care reform, and is willing to risk some capital to get it. But of course, he also would risk capital by not doing anything; critics, especially within his own party and from his base, would say he talked the talked during last year’s primary and then balked the balked once in office. The second view is simply too charitable, because it presumes confidence that some of the independents currently abandoning him are going to return; and without them, he could be in serious trouble. And yet, if forced to move on reform at some point, the period immediately after the first six months’ emergency actions provides the longest recovery period.

There’s surely been some miscalculation, however. Health care reform isn’t the stimulus package. For one thing, the stimulus is a temporary booster, whereas reform will ramify for decades. Moreover, although the effects of the $787 billion will hardly affect every American the same way, there’s no doubt the un- and under-insured stand to benefit more–and even the slightest whiff of redistribution makes a lot of Americans queasy. Finally, well yes, there has been something of a political mugging. Need I review everything that’s transpired on television and in town halls since the Sen. DeMint fired the starter’s gun with his “Waterloo” comment? Thought not.

Whatever combination of the above four, Obama now faces the toughest political challenge of his presidency thus far.

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