In a crucial week of high wire politics, Barack Obama is seeking to transform his top priority health care plan, now a liability for his presidency, into a trump card to outwit Republicans.
But ahead of the president’s bipartisan health “summit” on Thursday, Republicans also think they may have a winning hand, after building their resurgence on blanket opposition to the plan and Obama’s wider agenda.
The White House said it would release details of the plan on its website Monday.
Thursday’s live, televised meeting at Blair House, across the street from the White House, may represent Obama’s last chance to pass the plan, which has ground to a halt in Congress with painful consequences for his political authority.
The talks may also dictate battle lines for mid-term congressional elections in November, and have deep implications for Obama’s slowed presidency.
“I don’t want to see this meeting turn into political theater, with each side simply reciting talking points and trying to score political points,” the president said in his weekly radio and web video address Saturday.
“Instead, I ask members of both parties to seek common ground in an effort to solve a problem that’s been with us for generations.”
Obama may benefit politically whichever way the meeting turns out, a factor that has some Republicans smelling a trap.
If his foes compromise on radically different versions of health care, the president will likely get the credit, and finally get his signature reform through Congress.
But if they simply block him, Obama can say Republicans thwarted the bipartisanship voters across party lines tell pollsters they want to see.
“It creates an opportunity for the president to demonstrate that the Republicans do have an obstruction strategy,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas.
It will be a significant moment when Obama finally takes ownership of the health reform legislation, as pundits have criticized him for so far allowing Democratic lawmakers to dictate the content of his plan.
“What the president is trying to do with the February 25 meeting is to reframe the issue, to show that he is working across party lines,” said Steven Smith, a professor at Washington University, St Louis.
Obama threw down the gauntlet to his foes at a town hall meeting Friday in Las Vegas.
“The Republicans say they have got a better way of doing it. I want them to put it on the table… Show me what you got.”
The Republican leadership has so far only sketched broad legislation on health care and faces claims by Democrats that their version would leave tens of millions of people uninsured, a point Obama will likely make at the Blair House meeting.
And the president’s decision to plow ahead with the stalled health reform agenda was derided as “arrogant.”
“The American people do not want this bill to pass. And it strikes me as rather arrogant to say, ‘Well, we’re going to give it to you anyway,” McConnell told the Fox News Sunday program.
Polls show that health reform is not the top concern of most Americans, in the aftermath of the economic crisis with unemployment close to 10 percent.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll this month found that 43 percent of those asked approve of Obama’s handling of health care, while 53 percent disapprove.
Months of wrangling on the bill in Congress, and the inability of the Democratic Party to pass it, have further soured the public.
Yet Obama is doubling down, apparently sensing the fate of his wider agenda may rest on the outcome of the health care battle.
He has also warned wavering Democrats that their core supporters will be demoralized by mid-term elections in November if their congressional majorities do not produce results.
Republicans gained the power to thwart Obama’s plans indefinitely last month by capturing a Massachusetts Senate seat to break the Democratic Party’s 60 seat filibuster-proof majority.
They are now calling on the White House to shelve a bid to pass the health care legislation through “reconciliation,” a process used for budget and deficit bills that requires only 50 votes.