Health Summit Provides Obama A Leadership Test

When President Obama sits down with Republican leaders for his live health care summit Thursday it will look like he is trying once again to find that elusive commodity: bipartisanship. But, in fact, a lot more will be going on at Blair House, including an important test of presidential leadership.

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Tomorrow, President Obama meets with congressional leaders for his live televised health care summit. With Republicans hostile to the plan on the table, the president may have a hard time finding that elusive Capitol Hill commodity: bipartisanship. But tomorrow's meeting is about more than reaching across the aisle.

As NPR's Mara Liasson reports, the president has to make sure his own side of the aisle is behind him.

MARA LIASSON: No one in Washington thinks there's much consensus to be found between the two parties at this point in the health care debate. Instead, the political purpose of tomorrow's meeting, for the president, is something else. As Mr. Obama explained it last week, he wants a contrast.

President BARACK OBAMA: The Republicans say that they've got a better way of doing it. So I want them to put it on the table.

LIASSON: Tomorrow, in front of the television cameras, Mr. Obama will get to showcase two things voters say they want from Washington: transparency and bipartisanship. He'll also get to highlight the popular parts of his own plan and, he hopes, show that the Republicans' plan is either non-existent or deficient.

But the fact he has to do this at all, trying once again to resuscitate his number one domestic priority, shows the limits of the president's consensus-seeking leadership style.

Dee Dee Myers, who was Bill Clinton's press secretary, says Mr. Obama is not the first president to be slow to understand the singular power of the office.

Ms. DEE DEE MYERS (Former Press Secretary, White House): President Obama is learning that. He thought he could sit down and reason together with some leadership of the House and the Senate, which were controlled by Democrats. And he's found out that he has to do more that. This is going to take him doing something that he's been unwilling to do so far, which is really hold certain wavering Democratic members' feet to the fire.

LIASSON: Indeed, the real audience tomorrow is the president's own party on Capitol Hill. Because the White House knows, barring a bipartisan miracle at Blair House, they'll have to pass the health care bill - which as of this week is the president's bill - with Democratic votes alone.

Bill Galston, who also worked for President Clinton, says to do that, Mr. Obama will have to get in touch with his inner LBJ.

Mr. BILL GALSTON (Former Domestic Policy Adviser, White House): That very, very simple task will be at the center of the Obama administration's presidency for the next few weeks. And it's not too much to say that a substantial portion of the credibility of the president's leadership itself is riding on the outcome.

LIASSON: The fact that Mr. Obama has found himself in such a desperate situation is to some extent his own fault, says Galston. Time and again, he's tried to delegate big jobs to others and when they fail he has to come to the rescue.

Mr. GALSTON: That is the president's pattern. Call it mastery and drift, where there's an extended period of drift during which things aren't going so well. And then when it becomes clear to the president that they aren't going well, he tends to intervene, intervene quite strongly.

LIASSON: He did it repeatedly during the campaign, Galston says. And now with health care, with no other powerful surrogates in his administration to rely on, he has to try to do it himself again, and at a time when his party is fractious and panicky, and his own political clout is at its lowest point.

The president may have waited too long to take ownership of the bill, Galston says, but no one can say he isn't bold.

Mr. GALSTON: As president, Mr. Obama has hardly been risk-averse. And this is something oddly that he has in common with his predecessor, George W. Bush. He is quite impatient with small-ball politics. He wants to throw long passes, and if need be, he's willing to throw a Hail Mary.

LIASSON: And his health care end game is certainly that. The conventional wisdom in Washington right now is that Mr. Obama doesn't have the votes in Congress because he hasn't been a strong enough leader.

But presidential scholar John Milton Cooper, who just wrote a biography of Woodrow Wilson, disagrees.

Professor JOHN MILTON COOPER JR. (History, University of Wisconsin): Our image of the strong president is based upon FDR and LBJ and a touch of Theodore Roosevelt thrown in, which is a very meddlesome, hyperactive, often manipulative, sometimes bullying president. Well, we've had others, and I think that two of them actually are Wilson and Reagan who were not that way.

And I think delegating and keeping his cool as - comes naturally to Obama, anyway. And I think he can turn that into something good.

LIASSON: If he can do that, if he can get the Democratic votes he needs to pass his health care bill, his leadership style will look wise. If he doesn't, he'll look like he frittered away his political capital, ceded too much to Congress and didn't push his own party hard enough.

The answer will be clear very soon.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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