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Commentary: Obama's hold cards

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WASHINGTON -- It was not the soaring rhetoric that is Barack Obama's signature, but he recently offered the sound bite that may define his presidency: "Don't bet against us."

There are reasons to believe that his confident words -- they were about health care reform, but have broader application -- were not the bombast of a bluffer exaggerating the strength of his hand. They reflect the high cards that Obama holds and has only now started to play.

Of course, no one ever thought passing a health care bill would be easy, and the effort hit some bumps last week over costs and how to cover them.

But Obama doesn't quite see things the way his more nervous Democratic allies do because he missed the years in Washington during which his party was beaten down. Many Democrats had their perceptions of political reality shaped by the failure of Bill Clinton's health proposal, the 1994 Republican revolution, and the GOP's triumphalism during President Bush's first term.

But in 2005, the year Obama came to Washington, that world was turning upside down. Bush's power dissolved in the failure of his Social Security privatization proposal, the Hurricane Katrina backlash, and rising disillusionment with the Iraq War. By the end of 2006, less than two years after Obama's arrival, Democrats had seized control of both houses of Congress.

The paradox is that Obama's limited experience under Republican sway makes him more comfortable than are many of his allies with wielding the power that comes from large Democratic majorities.

And it's real power. Nothing made that clearer than the trajectory of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination battle -- or non-battle.

It has often been said that Republicans have not put up much of a fight against her, but the reason for their pacifism is rarely mentioned: Republicans were severely constrained simply because they lack numerical clout.

Had the Senate been more closely divided, the GOP might have mounted a more aggressive campaign that, if nothing else, could have raised the cost for moderate Democrats of supporting Sotomayor. But knowing they'd never get the votes to stop her, Republicans decided to wait for a more opportune moment to pick a real fight.

The numbers work Obama's way on other issues. Much was made of the 44 House Democrats who defected from the president's position by opposing the cap-and-trade bill last month. The more important fact is that Democrats have such a big majority that they could lose all those votes and still prevail, even if narrowly. The same numbers give Speaker Nancy Pelosi significant room to maneuver in selling the House health care bill.

And with 60 votes in the Senate, Democrats can, in principle, work their will on health care without any Republican support. Obama is bound to make compromises, partly to bring moderate Democrats along. But the size of the Democrats' Senate majority means they won't be able to blame the Republicans if health reform dies. This increases the pressure on moderate Democrats to get something done.

There is thus an irony to the game Obama must play. He will continue to speak in bipartisan terms to keep open the possibility of picking off Republicans if they're needed -- Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, already seems inclined to work with him -- and because such an approach appeals to moderate Democrats whose sensibilities he must soothe.

The open-to-the-other-side style also helps him hold support from political independents around the country. He needs them to preserve his good approval ratings, which are themselves a form of political capital.

But Obama must simultaneously persuade Democrats that they are not living in the Republican congressional eras of 1995 or 2003 -- that if it's necessary, they have the strength on their own to win. This was the implicit message Obama conveyed to Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to push him to conclude his frustratingly protracted health care negotiations with Republicans in the Senate Finance Committee.

Getting Baucus to move this week is essential to maintaining momentum. If Obama seems likely to win, interest groups will be more forthcoming, his own party will be more likely to hold together, and more Republicans will be inclined to cut a deal.

And that, finally, is why Obama wants to make sure his party bets with him, not against him. His core message to fellow Democrats is that the only things they have to fear are the fears and insecurities bred into them when they were a battered minority. Obama is free of those doubts because he never knew them.

E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is ejdionne@wctrib.com.

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