WASHINGTON - If I were a broker and Barack Obama were a stock, I’d have a one-word piece of advice today: buy.
That may sound odd at a time when the president’s approval rating is at an all-time low and he’s spent an agonizing year on health care reform without yet signing a bill.
Republicans and conservatives loathe him; his Democratic base is impatient with him; the "mainstream" media now wonders whether he’s all talk and no savvy. Handicappers say his party could lose Congress in November.
But reports of his political insolvency are almost certainly wrong.
For starters, he’s probably going to get his "reform" bill. No one’s exactly sure what the vote count will be, but if he is willing to stake his presidency on it — and he clearly is — then history shows he can muscle, horse-trade and beg his way to a "win."
There seems to be a fated quality to this: for Obama and the Democratic leadership, it’s just too late to turn back.
If he signs the final bill into law, the president will be able to brag that 30 million more people will be covered and that new federal oversight will oversee the (unpopular) insurance industry. And he’ll claim that reform will save the government money — even though the validity of that claim will take years to determine.
Even if Obama loses, there would be some good news in that dark cloud. He’ll be able to attack the GOP for blocking health care reform, and he can move on to other, more politically comfortable topics like reining in banks and Wall Street.
Beyond the specifics of the health care battle, there are other reasons to resist the urge to declare Obama politically insolvent.
The first is: never trust conventional wisdom — which right now puts Obama somewhere between toast and Jimmy Carter.
In politics, you can never extrapolate in a straight line: not to midterm elections eight months away, let alone to a presidential election almost three years hence. Politics is a curved, interactive universe, in which each new event affects all those to come. And in politics, a week is a year and a year is a lifetime. Grave, definitive predictions — even about the midterms — are absurd at this point.
Even if today’s conventional wisdom about the midterms proves correct and Democrats get pummeled in the fall, it still won’t mean Obama is by any means finished.
Plenty of presidents — including Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan — have reoriented themselves after midterm disasters and won re-election. Midterm losses by the president’s party are, after all, the norm.
Obama’s ultimate fate rests not with health care but with the economy, and he has some reason to think he can tell a decent story about his own efforts to revive it. Right now, unemployment remains high, a second wave of foreclosures is about to hit, and state budgets — artificially protected by federal money — will soon be in shreds.
But the president will get some credit for preventing a worse catastrophe — and economic growth numbers are likely to keep slowly improving over the next couple of years.
Politics is a game of comparison. You can’t evaluate the prospects of one politician, especially a president, until you know what the opposition looks like.
And the opposition may well be overplaying their hand. Republicans are increasingly being shackled to tea partiers and other harsh voices in the conservative media who are viewed with a wary eye by swing voters. Independents are upset with the White House right now, but when they are reminded that the other team includes Glenn Beck, they may think better of Team Obama.
And who will ultimately step forward to challenge Obama for the White House? It’s way too early to know, which is why it’s way too early to say that his presidency is over.