How Jim DeMint did Obama a favor

The senator said healthcare would be Obama's 'Waterloo' – if Obama lost, it would break him. Now, Obama is using the comment as an example of crass Beltway obstructionism.

Mary Ann Chastain/AP
US Sen. Jim DeMint (R) shown here on July 1 in Aiken, S.C.

"If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."

When Jim DeMint uttered those words late last week, he did the president a favor.

In one memorable line, the Republican senator from South Carolina turned the healthcare debate into a personal battle against President Obama. Suddenly, Mr. Obama has a foil. “The Party of No” – the Democrats’ name for Republicans trying to block reform – now has a face, and it’s Senator DeMint.

Both Monday and Tuesday, Obama has riffed on DeMint's comments, turning the debate into an argument about “opponents of reform.”

On Monday, Obama said, “This isn’t about me. This isn’t about politics. This is about a healthcare system that is breaking America’s families, breaking America’s businesses, and breaking America’s economy.”

On Tuesday, he kept going: “I know that there are those in this town who openly declare their intention to block reform. It's a familiar Washington script that we've seen many times before. These opponents of reform would rather score political points than offer relief to Americans who've seen premiums double and costs grow three times faster than wages.”

Obama still has some ground to make up with public opinion. A Gallup poll released Tuesday shows that more Americans now disapprove (50 percent) than approve (44 percent) of how Obama is handling healthcare policy.

Analysts say Obama lost ground in the debate while he has been dealing with other issues. He just spent nearly a week overseas, visiting Russia, then attending the G-8 summit in Italy, then going to Ghana.

“One of the mistakes they’ve made, it seems to me, is they went a long time where he was not out front on that issue,” says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The Republicans were actually able to frame the agenda in a way that [says], they’re going to let government step in between you and your doctors.”

“If he had framed the agenda as, ‘We’re going to move away from a situation where the insurance companies are stepping in between you and your doctors,’ we’d probably be in a different place,” Mr. Ornstein adds.

DeMint can be especially useful in keeping Obama’s left flank with him on health reform, as the president contemplates the inevitable compromises. The campaign wing of Obama’s operation, called Organizing for America – and based at the Democratic National Committee – has also leaped on the DeMint comment. On Tuesday, OFA director Mitch Stewart sent an e-mail to supporters, citing DeMint’s "Waterloo" comment and asking them to sign a “declaration of support” for Obama.

The DNC itself released a Web ad, also riffing on DeMint's remarks – throwing in conservative talker Rush Limbaugh and South Carolina’s other Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, for good measure. “Tell Republicans: Stop rooting for failure and start fighting for the American people,” the ad concludes.


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