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And for His Second Act: Health Care

Karl Rove is onto the president’s two favorite ploys: “move the goalposts” and argue against straw men. In the face of the failed stimulus plan, Obama now says he never promised an immediate job recovery. Wrong. He did. And he now argues (as he did at the time) that his opponents wanted to do “nothing.” Wrong. They actually gave him lists of alternatives.

The danger for the Obama administration is not simply that his first major legislative undertaking, the stimulus plan, is failing; it is that the extent of the failure and the irritating denial of failure by Obama come at a time he most needs the public and Congress to trust him.

Health care is a massive, expensive, and daunting undertaking in which opposing sides have sharply contrasting claims. The public option will drive us all onto government health care, claims one side. That’s nonsense, says the other. The “rich” will pay for it, claims one side; that’s fiscal fantasy-land, says the other. And so it goes. So now is the time the president must appear both competent and entirely credible. If the public doesn’t buy his pitch, there isn’t going to be a sweeping health-care reform bill.

But how does that work when Obama is spewing easily disproven spin about his first major piece of legislation? That’s bound to unnerve those already suspicious of the grandiose plans for remaking the health-care system. As his poll numbers sink, lawmakers may begin to doubt the wisdom of adhering too closely to a president rapidly losing political altitude. Moreover, both members of Congress and the public may begin to lose confidence in the substance of his arguments. As Rove says: “Americans are right to wonder if their president is using his own private definitions for the words he uses to sell his policies.

If “immediate” jobs didn’t really mean we’d get job growth immediately, then maybe “you get to keep your health insurance if you like” doesn’t mean what we think it does. And “health-care reform isn’t going to add to the deficit” may be only as believable as those 3-4 million “saved or created” jobs.

In short, the American people might just get the idea that if Obama is spinning us on what he’s already done, he might just be pulling a fast one on his next undertaking.