Obama asserts himself on bailout

If Obama can broker a real deal with the necessary votes, will he be hero or goat?

Published September 30, 2008 7:23PM (EDT)

There was a strange coalition of nay votes on the House bailout bill Monday. Aside from obvious ones (e.g., members facing tough reelection fights), it was an odd bedfellowship of liberal Democrats and small-government conservatives, both worried about placing the costs of the bailout squarely on the backs of working-class taxpayers.

Enter Obama. "To the Democrats and Republicans who opposed this plan yesterday, I say: Step up to the plate and do what's right for this country," Obama said in Reno, Nev., earlier today. "And to all Americans, I say this: If I am president of the United States, this rescue plan will not be the end of what we do to strengthen this economy. It will only be the beginning."

Obama is making a gutsy gamble here. A lot of Americans are wary about the bailout, which is why there were too few "ayes" on the floor yesterday. As I suggested yesterday, Obama could demonstrate his leadership skills by figuring out a legislative solution that would keep the current coalition together and add 10-20 more votes. There are several black and Hispanic Democrats who voted nay, and they are as good a group as any to approach first. (Most come from safe districts.)

If he's going to lend his voice to the bailout plan, he might as well put his back into it, too. Yes, the Republicans are going to try to prevent him from taking too much credit. But if Obama can negotiate a plan that would add those final dozen or so votes to give it a clear winning margin, he could own the moment.

On the other hand, given the bailout's unpopularity he could suffer some blame. Again, it's risky. But he is also politically insulated because John McCain supports the bailout, so his point of differentiation is not on his position but, rather, on the demonstration of political effectiveness and presidential-caliber leadership in advancing that position.

Talking Points Memo's Greg Sargent has some thoughts of his own on the matter.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.