Saturday, August 15, 2009

Top-Ticket Democrats Judging Obama

What was most interesting about Obama’s town hall in Belgrade Montana on Friday was the body language of the state’s three democratic honchos who sat together just behind the president:

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, freshman Sen. Jon Tester and main man Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, who is determined to tease out republican votes on health reform.

In a state where Bush beat Kerry in 2004 by 20 points - Obama lost to McCain by less than two and a half percent - it’s encouraging to have three democrats at the top (the sole House member is republican). And although Montana is not a pivotal swing state, winning here could help us in the future become competitive in, for example, the adjacent Dakotas.

So as much as progressive democrats may disagree with or dislike Sen. Baucus, he is, at least by some indicators - 80 percent on the Americans for Democratic Action’s 2008 scorecard - a reliable moderate democrat.

As the three of them watched the prez answer their constituent’s questions (Gov. Schweitzer is in the middle with the string tie, Max to his left), the impression I got was of three elders, sitting in critical judgment of their out-of-town visitor. It was an audition. The 67-year-old Baucus, a U.S. senator for 30 years, faces reelection in 2014. The 53-year-old Tester, who won three years ago by less than 3000 votes, would run again in 2012.

On stage in shirtsleeves and no tie, Obama responds. As always, there are a few too many hesitations and “uhms”. But as the q & a continues, he seems to find his way through his complicated and nuanced message, that of building what he calls a “uniquely American system of providing care.”

Much of what the president said was in deference to Baucus (currently being lobbied nonstop by a slew of former aids in the pockets of anti-reform forces) who may be the single most important figure in determining if a bill passes and what’s in it.

Brian, Jon and Max shift slightly in their seats and there were even some small changes in their facial expressions. They were stoic and watchful. What were they thinking?

My guess is that with Obama’s popularity slipping, top-ticket democrats, like these dudes from Montana, are worried. They want to make sure that this president has what it takes.

In that respect, Obama’s August showdown with republicans is not just about health care. He has to demonstrate, one way or another, that he can outsmart or outmaneuver opponents, appease and pull in business democrats and hold his base.

If he does this, and delivers meaningful reform, he will be perceived as a pragmatic problem-solver. That’s what top-ticket democrats - and many anxious activists - want to see.

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