Obama's Quest for the New Deal in the Land of the Best Deal

Barack Obama

President Obama is trying to recover the promise of change and momentum that carried him into office. The rookie president has spent a great deal of time giving speeches and holding town halls, offering his 21st version of the New Deal.

But his efforts so far to sway popular opinion, and get Congress to go along with his plans for the country, are largely going unrewarded.

It appears that Congress, the representatives of the people, are obsessed with a Best Deal, serving their own political interests, rather than the New Deal that the country needs.

Politicians can argue about the deal points, but American citizens are wondering why the two parties are so ineffective in pursuing a shared agenda to solve critical problems, such as spiraling health costs and their drag on the economy.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich placed some of the blame on Mr. Obama's management style:

"To galvanize the nation, Obama needs to articulate a substantive belief system that's built from his bedrock convictions. His presidency cannot be about the cool equanimity and intellectual command of his management style."

Rich noted that F.D.R. and Reagan were able to come up with a "credo 'nonideological' enough to serve as an umbrella for all their goals and to attract lasting majority coalitions of disparate American constituencies," and "so can this gifted president."

President Roosevelt's New Deal was about relief, reform and recovery after the Great Depression and leading up to the World War II. The economic recovery from this "Great Recession" has a similar story line. However, relief in the form of putting more people back to work and passing health care and financial system reform are mired in political strife and the politics of personal rancor.

On Monday, Mr. Obama dropped his cool town-hall reserve, returning to the more aggressive style that galvanized his campaign in a speech at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa. Just as President Reagan painted the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire," Mr. Obama focused his narrative on a villain undermining American values.

Mr. Obama painted the insurance industry as an evil empire, an unconscionable villain, with "so little competition" that "they're ok with people being priced out of health insurance because they'll still make more by raising premiums on the customers they have. And they will keep doing this for as long as they can get away with it."

In his speech at Arcadia University, the president encouraged the assembled crowd to "seize reform":

"The time for talk is over. We need to see where people stand. And we need all of you to help us win that vote. So I need you to knock on doors. Talk to your neighbors. Pick up the phone. When you hear an argument by the water cooler and somebody is saying this or that about it, say, no, no, no, no, hold on a second. And we need you to make your voices heard all the way in Washington, D.C.

"They need to hear your voices because right now the Washington echo chamber is in full throttle. It is as deafening as it's ever been. And as we come to that final vote, that echo chamber is telling members of Congress, wait, think about the politics -- instead of thinking about doing the right thing."

Mr. Obama will head for St. Louis, Mo., on Wednesday to continue his populist campaign, as the clock ticks toward his self-imposed March 18 deadline for an up or down vote on what has become "his" health care reform bill.

With all these stops, he is seeking to keep the pressure on wavering Democrats who might be inclined not to support the health care bill because they instead seek the Best Deal for them politically and fear what a vote for the bill will do to them in November.

Here's Mr. Obama's response, from his speech today: "I don't know how passing health care reform will play politically, but I know it's the right thing to do. If you share that belief, I want you to stand with me and fight with me."

And with that, the battle lines are drawn. In the next ten days, Mr. Obama will likely find out if his vision for a New Deal can eclipse or beat down the Best Deal mentality that reigns from politicians in Washington.

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    Dan has more than 20 years of journalism experience. He has served as editor in chief of, CNET News, ZDNet, PC Week, and MacWeek.