Still savoring what was easily the best week of the Obama presidency, the White House and Democrats are looking to build on recent successes with an agenda for the rest of the year that they contend can address economic problems and reduce the party's expected losses in November.
The top priorities include a domestic push for an overhaul of the nation's financial regulatory system and a foreign policy focus on nuclear safety. With an eye on the midterm elections, the overall goal is to demonstrate that Democrats, when given a majority, know how to govern.
In the span of just a few days, the president achieved victory on the healthcare overhaul that had been his top priority, announced a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, pushed through Congress a major reform of student loans and received a rock-star welcome from troops in Afghanistan.
Clearly buoyed by the successes, the president looked back fondly on the big wins, singling out health care and student loans as "two major victories in one week that will improve the lives of our people for generations to come." The mood might be contagious. After months of gloom, there are now early signs of cautious optimism on Capitol Hill and even a little ebullience at the White House.
"The truth is that health care was the issue that animated a lot of people for the campaign," said Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest. "For some people, this was the reason they got involved and worked so hard. Taking the long view, this was the issue that some people dedicated their lives to, and it was satisfying to score a win."
The mood has similarly improved inside the Democratic caucuses in Congress, said former Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., who stays in close contact with former colleagues. "There is still a lot of angst about how each individual is going to handle their own politics on health care," he said. "But the momentum has been shifting, and the morale is improving. Democrats now think they see some hope out there where a few months ago they were very grim and very frightened about the future."
Fazio said Obama would have had little hope for the rest of his legislative agenda this year had he lost on health care. "Whether his presidency would have been threatened, I don't know. But certainly his majorities would have been threatened," he said. "Members would have hunkered down and been very, very hard to reach for the rest of the session on almost anything."
Now, said Earnest, the wins "build some momentum on Capitol Hill for the president's agenda," adding they should "encourage members of Congress to continue pursuing an agenda" set by the president. He said the White House views financial regulatory reform and the upcoming nuclear safety summit as most important.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg agreed that there is a linkage between the outcome of the health fight and the rest of the agenda. "Each thing they do increases their ability to do the next," he said. "Health care increased their ability to do financial regulation."
The key issue, he contended, is making government work.
"Competence matters," Greenberg said. "Up until now, Democrats have failed in governance. They need a series of things that shows that they can address the big problems and act together."