WASHINGTON – Just before midnight Sunday, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel sent an e-mail to the aides who had helped win passage of the historic health care overhaul. “Take a moment to celebrate tonight,” Emanuel wrote. “It’s on to the next one tomorrow.”
President Barack Obama spent 14 months getting to this moment, but aides said Monday he won’t spend much time savoring it as he plans an aggressive after-action campaign to explain the new bill to Americans and try to deflect a Republican counter-assault. And other policy goals he had postponed in favor of health care now jump to the front of the line.
Obama will sign the health care bill in a ceremony today. Two days later, he’ll travel to Iowa City where, as a presidential candidate, he first unveiled his health care proposal.
Iowa is only the first stop in what will be a concerted effort by the White House to explain a bill that many Americans still don’t understand.
“This is an administration priority,” a senior White House official said Monday. “And we’ll use the administration to make sure we are a heavy part of the playing field in defining not just what’s at stake anymore, but what it means now that health care reform is the law of the land.”
Much as Obama might like to change the subject after the yearlong slog, he has no choice but to sell the bill to people who remain skeptical, analysts said. Health care is likely to be a dominant campaign issue in the November midterm elections, putting pressure on the White House to make the case for the bill and defend Democrats who voted for it.
Obama’s Cabinet secretaries will also be part of the effort to reshape public perceptions, with events tailored for both cities and rural areas.
“If this is going to be turned into a real asset for Democrats, the president and others have to be out there in a continual effort to sell this plan,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. “Just letting it lie is not good. It’s got to be sold, sold actively and sold vigorously – otherwise it will become a liability.”
For now, White House aides are happy to have pocketed a victory. On Monday, they looked weary but gratified after monitoring the vote and attending a post-midnight celebration with the president.
With health care legislation nearly complete, aides said the White House is refining its agenda for the rest of the year.
The administration’s next major initiative will be a renewed push for a sweeping set of financial regulations.
A regulatory measure passed the House in December without any Republican votes and is pending in the Senate. Although bipartisanship has been virtually non-existent in Congress, White House officials believe that electoral politics gives them a strong chance of winning passage of the financial regulation bill.
With midterm elections coming up in November, “I don’t think you want to go home and prove to voters you’ve been fighting for banks,” said the White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The administration’s push for the bill already has begun. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner delivered a speech Monday calling on lawmakers to pass the regulations, which would create a new agency to protect consumers in the marketplace.
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