Bye, bye, Mr. Nice Guy. After pursuing bipartisan talks for months on health care and deflecting rather than challenging Republican critics, President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies are deploying a more aggressive approach in their attempt to push financial overhaul legislation through the Senate.
Wall Street, Obama proclaimed in Illinois this past week, is little better than "a big casino" playing with "Monopoly money."
"Those irresponsible practices came awfully close to bringing down our entire economy and millions of dreams along with it," the president thundered.
In the Capitol, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., explained it bluntly.
"Bottom line, on the health care bill, we allowed too many lies to get out there without rebuttal, because we thought they were so obviously untrue," he said. "But we've learned our lesson."
"And the minute these things come out of the mouths of some of our Republican colleagues, we rebut them. And we rebut them again and again. And fortunately, these lies are not taking hold."
Republicans dispute that, saying Democrats are the ones mischaracterizing the legislation and that they want reform as much as anyone. "Everyone agrees that we must rein in Wall Street," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said this past week as she and others in the GOP sought to prolong talks on the bill rather than start voting on it.
Last year, though, health care negotiations between Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee chewed through crucial months before Obama finally pulled the plug. Opponents of the legislation used the time to attack the president's plan, claiming falsely it would have led to death panels for the elderly, for example, and draining away public support.
Democrats faced angry voters at dozens of town hall meetings over the summer. In the end, nearly 13 months after Obama brought Democrats and Republicans to the White House to start work together, the bill passed without a single GOP vote.
This time, several Senate Republicans have said they want to support legislation to impose new regulations on Wall Street.
But the White House and Democrats aren't taking them at their word.
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, pursued a bipartisan deal, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid didn't wait to see how that turned out. He brought the bill up on the floor three times in as many days this week, forcing Republicans to vote against moving forward. With political pressure mounting for changes that Americans support, Republicans abandoned their filibuster and allowed debate to begin on the bill.
"You saw how hard we tried in health care to get something done," said Reid, D-Nev. "I'm not going to waste any more time of the American people."
On health care, angry town hall meetings and Capitol Hill spats dominated the news many days without the administration rising above the day-to-day bickering to deliver an overarching narrative. Lawmakers got spooked by poisonous poll numbers back home.
On financial reform, Obama has developed a crisper message, citing object lessons like the bailout of insurance giant AIG that the legislation would seek to prevent from happening again. Obama armed himself with that kind of specific message only toward the end of the health care debate, when proposed rate increases by a California insurer gave him a new talking point that helped set up the ultimately successful endgame.
White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said health care reaffirmed two lessons: "not to let the day-to-day political disputes distract from the overall goal and not to assume that the opposition is willing to be constructive."
The White House is also taking a different approach legislatively. With health care, Obama stood back and let Congress take the lead in writing the bill, dipping in here and there to offer guidance. This time, the administration has been much more closely involved on the front end on financial reform, sending reams of bill text to the Hill, something that never happened on health care.
"You can see immediately the difference in tone, and you can't help thinking they learned that message pretty quickly," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who called for greater engagement from Obama in the health care fight. "There was no waiting for their 60th vote (in the Senate), or waiting for a bipartisan group to finish meeting. They pretty much cut to the part where the president stands up and says, 'Here's what I want.'"
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