The last time Americans celebrated this long holiday weekend - first convened in 1882 to publicly applaud "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations" - Barack Obama was the Democratic nominee and trailing after a long, drifting summer that knocked his impressive, disciplined campaign off message and off kilter. Then September dawned, Lehman Brothers died, the swirl of the world economy began its grand flush, the electorate took a longer look at Sarah Palin, and John McCain opened his mouth to say the country's financial structures remained strong.
Obama counter-punched on the economy and didn't stop hitting till McCain was on TV thanking his supporters and (rather deliciously, from a spectator's view) freezing out Palin.
In truth, that's mainly who Obama is as a politician: a man who sees an opening, who doesn't panic against the ropes, who occasionally works the clock. Writers who resort to boxing metaphors should spend a term of no less than a year in re-education camps, but I'll risk it just this once and date myself at the same time: the President's always been more Ali than Frazier, a synthetic blend of talent and tactics.
Come Wednesday night and the Confab on Capitol Hill, Obama attempts to shift away from the ropes on healthcare reform and go on the offensive once again - really, the first time he's attempted this pivot since coming to power. The odds aren't great: last year, he was allowed six months between turning to embrace the half of the Democratic Party that fought for Hillary Clinton, and the rest of the electorate. This time, he has to fire the combo in rapid succession.
And he doesn't exactly have the collective wisdom on Angelo Dundee in his party's corner, either. Let's listen in on Howard Cosell, uh, that is to say, James Wolcott:
There are times when Democrats remind me of the episode of Seinfeld where, after a slapstick chain of mishaps, Kramer finds himself pinned against the wall like a soldier about to be executed as a tennis-ball machine bops one ball after another off of his head, until he groggily collapses and slides out of frame. The history and velocity and modus operandi of conservative attacks on elected Democrats are out there in the screaming daylight open and yet time and again they find themselves in a passive, stationary, unprepared position, getting pounded into mush, going down in - well, it's too early and wimpy to talk about defeat. But stale defeatism is definitely loose in the air.
To borrow a word Democrats generally shrink from - the word that launched Ted Kennedy's 1980 campaign - there is general malaise settling over town these days, a kind of wimpy (to borrow Wolcott's invective) deflation in expectations from Democratic Washington, beginning with the White House. At Obama's urging, thousands of Facebook users posted this as their status last week:
No one should die because they cannot afford healthcare. No one should go broke because they get sick, and no one should be tied to a job because of pre-existing condition. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.
What's remarkable isn't the clarity of the language, or the fact that it became so instantly widespread. No, what's remarkable is that it comes so late in the game. If the White House - and its obsession with avoiding the mistakes of '93-94 - was really on the kind of A-plus game plan that defeated Clinton and McCain, this message mastery would have been in evidence during the over-hyped "first 100 days." Or even the second. Or even during the summer. But as I wrote a month ago, the Democrats surrendered the narrative to the opposition - the canny, strategic, money-wielding insurance lobby and the crazy, throw any insanity against the wall right wing.
For an issues that's supposed to represent the Administration's top domestic initiative, the slow and seemingly ad hoc nature of Obama's healthcare plan has been painful to watch unfold. For a politician renowned for "organizing the Presidency," it has all been spectacularly disorganized. And, frankly, unorganized - at least so far. At TechPresident, Colin Delaney voices the tactical despair many Democrats now feel, after watching (and taking part in) Obama's spectacular success last year:
The enemies may be somewhat different this time around, even if their tactics feel familiar, but the biggest gap is between Obama's grassroots politicking then and now.
The ability of the townhallers and death panelists to grab the attention of the media and chattering class caught many by surprise, but that kind of surprise didn't seem to matter so much to the Obamans a year ago. Remember Sarah Palin's VP nomination acceptance speech? The next day, Obama's fundraisers played their list like a musical instrument, ginning up more political donations in a 24-hour-period than anyone, ever.
By contrast, Obama for America has struggled to get into the health care debate in any meaningful way over the past few weeks. In that time, Obama has been punched from all sides -- from conservatives, of course, using both legitimate arguments and the made-up fantasies of the right-wing fringe, but also from the Left, as activists and bloggers try to hold his feet to the liberal fire.
The Organizer-in-Chief hasn't done much organizing, and the choir's getting smaller. And the lineup of bouts after healthcare isn't exactly the last bus from Palookaville either: Afghanistan, the employment crisis, a looming flu epidemic, market regulation. Well, Obama's turned things quickly before. And he's done it with major speeches. Sure, his kidneys must be aching from a thousand rabbit punches, but Wednesday night is clearly the start of the late rounds in the healthcare battle.
And here's the question: do we get a towel in the center of the bi-partisan ring - or some stinging counter-punches?