Obama's Sweet Reasoning, 'Consensus-Building' Falls on Deaf Ears in D.C.

As Thursday's health care summit approaches, Wednesday's front-page story by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, "Gentle White House Nudges Test the Power of Persuasion," sold Times readers on the idea, popular in the Times lately, of Obama the soft-spoken pragmatist whose appeals to sweet reason aren't working in vicious Washington. (Focusing on Obama conveniently enables the Times to ignore the mockery of Republicans by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.


Tempers were fraying in the White House Cabinet Room as night turned into morning on Jan. 15. President Obama had been cloistered nearly all day with House and Senate Democrats, playing "marriage counselor," an aide said, as he coaxed, cajoled and prodded them on a health care overhaul.

As the clock neared 1 a.m., the two sides were at an impasse. Mr. Obama stood up.

" 'See what you guys can figure out,' " one participant remembers him saying, adding that the failed effort left the president mad. Another Democrat who was there, Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, said Mr. Obama left "frustrated that while he was putting out ways to bridge the problem, we hadn't reached a conclusion."

Ever since his days as a young community organizer in Chicago, Mr. Obama has held fast to the belief that by listening carefully and appealing to reason he can bring people together to get results, an approach that in Washington has often come up short.

He is not showing any signs of changing his style. But he is facing perhaps the toughest test yet of his powers of persuasion: winning the votes he needs, in the face of unified Republican opposition and a deteriorating climate for Democrats, to push his health care measure through a skittish Congress.

Mr. Obama has not been the sort to bludgeon his party into following his lead or to intimidate reluctant legislators. And while he has often succeeded by relying on Democratic leaders in Congress to do his bidding - the House and Senate, after all, both passed versions of the health legislation last year - it is not clear whether his gentle, consensus-building style will be enough.

The GOP in Congress certainly doesn't consider his style "consensus-building," given that left-wing, Obama-inspired health plans have earned precisely one Republican vote in the House and Senate combined.

"I wouldn't mind seeing a little more toughness here or there," said Representative Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat, who contends that if Mr. Obama had pushed the Senate harder last year, the bill would have been law by now.

Like many Democrats in Congress, she praises Mr. Obama as intellectually gifted and a generous listener. But "if you are asking me if he dominates the room," she said, "I would have to say no."


As he has implored Democrats not to let his health bill die, Mr. Obama has often used the kind of lofty rhetoric and appeals to conscience and history that were his hallmark on the campaign trail. ("This is why voters sent us here," he often says.) Usually, he talks policy before politics, said Senator Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democrat who recently announced that he is retiring.