WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, had a little political advice last week for President Barack Obama and the Democrats: Don't pass the president's health care legislation because you would risk losing in the midterm elections.
Obama laughed about it afterward. "I generally wouldn't take advice about what's good for Democrats" from McConnell, he told an audience in Pennsylvania. But he conceded that "that's what members of Congress are hearing right now on the cable shows and in sort of the gossip columns in Washington." He went on to argue that the issue should be what's right, not the politics.
But this is Washington and politics are never far from the surface, especially at a decisive moment like this. If the schedule being mapped out at the end of last week holds, the fate of the president's health care plan should be decided within the next week. And its fate could depend on how a couple dozen Democratic congressmen answer the questions McConnell and Obama raised: Would passing health care devastate Democratic chances in the fall? Would rejecting it devastate a Democratic presidency?
Washington is already debating how pivotal the vote will be to his presidency. Obama has devoted vast energy and political capital over the last 14 months to get to this point, the presidential equivalent of an all-in bet on the poker table. Should he fail to push his plan through a Congress with strong Democratic majorities, it would certainly damage his credibility as a leader for months, and maybe years. Already the fight has scarred Washington, leaving behind a polarized and angry political elite and questions about whether the system is broken.
If Obama falls short on health care, his hopes of passing other ambitious legislation like an overhaul of immigration and a market-based cap on carbon emissions to curb climate change would seem out of reach, at least for the rest of this year. Much of Washington would question whether he is weak, some Democratic candidates would run away from him and Obama would be forced to consider a narrower agenda like that pursued by Bill Clinton after his own health care drive collapsed.
At the same time, passing it has its risks too. While a bill-signing ceremony in the Rose Garden would provide at least a short-term boost to a beleaguered president, Republicans have made clear that the legislative procedure Democrats are using to avoid another filibuster would so anger them that they would not cooperate on other major initiatives this year. Just last week, bipartisan talks on new Wall Street regulations broke down amid Republican complaints about the health care tactics. Of course, there has been so little Republican cooperation so far it may not be much of a sacrifice for Obama.
Still, for all the potential consequences, it is probably too hyperbolic to suggest the presidency rides on this moment. If he fails this week, Obama could still recover. Even a weakened president has enormous capacity to set an agenda. For all the damage Clinton absorbed from the failure of his health care plan and the Republican takeover, he eventually found his footing again and won re-election handily.
Of course, he and Bush both recovered from early troubles in part because of leadership during moments of crisis — Clinton after the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995 and Bush after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That may be harder for Obama, who inherited crises from the start in the form of two wars and an economic meltdown. The botched Christmas Day bombing suggested that Obama might face recriminations in case of a new crisis.
But he has the benefit of time and residual personal popularity, not to mention an opposition with its own challenges. "I don't think this will bring down the Obama presidency," said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma. "People understand that there's a Congress and there are other issues and no matter how much of a hit the Democrats take in the elections this fall, there's still a lot of things he can do in the next three years."
The problem for Obama, Edwards added, is that he has raised the stakes himself so high. "If he says this is make-or-break and my presidency depends on what the American people think of this issue," he said, "then he's putting himself in a bad spot."