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Obama channels Ali in health care prize fight

Image: Barack Obama
A fan of Muhammad Ali, the president is deploying the political version of the Champ’s most famous tactic. It’s called the “rope-a-dope.” Charles Dharapak / AP
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The Beltway consensus, aka the conventional wisdom, has turned on President Barack Obama.

Pundits, including me, are stressing his flaws and mistakes. So now is the time for me to get ahead of the crowd again and suggest that perhaps he actually knows what he's doing — at least on health care.

Whether he will achieve real reform is a different question, but he does seem to have a strategy for getting a bill to his desk.

A fan of Muhammad Ali, the president is deploying the political version of the Champ’s most famous tactic. It’s called the “rope-a-dope.”

Back in the day, Ali’s strategy was to lean against the ropes in early rounds, covering up while his foe pounded away at him. He had strong arms and massive hands, and could take a punch.

Once the enemy had “punched himself out” — arm-weary and exhausted from his own attacks — Ali, still comparatively fresh, would rise up, maneuver the bout to the center of the ring and unleash an overwhelming final, winning flurry.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Obama is capable of a big finish.

My own view is that he should have followed the Ronald Reagan model, seizing the initiative from the start with a simple, clear agenda that he could take to the country. Instead, the president is being pounded from all sides, and at times seems to be a bystander rather than a commander.

But there are tactical benefits now and in the weeks ahead for him as the health care prize fight grinds on.

First, Obama's strategy has turned an arcane legislative conversation into an ongoing national one, complete with Tea Parties and an endless procession of television ads. It's a mixed blessing for the president.

Yes, opponents have landed many good punches about the flaws of various Democratic proposals. But the drawn out process also has underscored the depth and seriousness of the problem. Few now would dispute the basic idea that we are spending too much money for not enough good, sensible health care. And voters have become familiar with the lingo of an industry that is opaque as it is gigantic.

And Obama has off-loaded to Congress — and out of his own White House — the many nasty conflicts involved in the debate over how to reform the health care system. This is a good thing.

It is such a complicated and contentious matter that his team could easily have gotten bogged down in its own internal disputes. There is no internecine war, and therefore no leaks about one.

Turning the enterprise over to Congress has made for an agonizing process, but I get the sense that his Republican enemies and Blue Dog doubters may be on the verge of punching themselves out.

The GOP and the Blue Dogs risk being accused of mere obstructionism on what everyone agrees — after listening to all the talk in recent months — is a deadly serious social and fiscal problem.

Look at the small but significant parade of Republicans — outside of Congress, for the most part — who are saying supportive things in one way or another: Mitt Romney, Bobby Jindal, Tommy Thompson, Bill Frist, Bob Dole, Michael Bloomberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The change in town is noticeable, and likely to grow.

Obama, quietly working the phones behind the scenes, is focusing these days on the 17 Democratic senators (18, counting an occasional compatriot, Arlen Specter) — the moderates who are part of Evan Bayh’s “mod squad.” In fact, they are meeting today with Sen. Max Baucus to discuss his bill, much of which has the tacit support of the president and his advisors.

By not committing to one plan — by not moving to the center of the ring — Obama is leaving himself free to try to pick and choose among the elements of the five different bills now on the table. Sen. Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi will take the lead in boiling them down.

The first truly pivotal moment could come next week, when the Senate has to vote on its consensus bill. The Democrats at some point will need 60 votes. If they can’t manage 60 overall, they may split the bill into pieces, and pass some via the “reconciliation” procedure, which requires only 50.

No matter what procedure his allies use, and how many votes he ultimately needs, Obama is going to have to get off the ropes and into the middle of the ring at some point — soon. When he does we’ll see whether he has what it really takes to be The Champ.