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Obama's emerging style: How he reaped House votes like Dennis Kucinich on healthcare

March 25, 2010 |  2:22 am

Democrats Barack Obama and Dennis Kucinich aboard Air Force One 3-10

Last year when the nation's top talker wouldn't stop talking to town hall crowd after town hall crowd about the expansive, expensive healthcare bill he'd put ahead of jobs and economic stimulus on his personal campaign agenda, the poll numbers sank and sank -- both for him and for the bill.

But then after months of general disengagement, as he'd been with the economic stimulus legislation, the ex-state senator became less aloof, more active on the ground, talking to legislators, individually and in small groups, about the massive measure and how important it was for Americans' future -- and by implication, their own. Convincing people being something unnecessary in Chicago's ruthless one-party system where members are obedient or gone.

Et voila the really good talker began making encouraging headway. So Obama did it some more. And it worked even more, despite the adverse wintry election winds blowing out of Virginia, New Jersey and liberal Massachusetts, with the upset Senate election there of outspoken Republican healthcare opponent Scott Brown.

On Sunday, the controversial document passed the House, and on Tuesday, President No. 44 signed it into law. According to Vice President Joe Biden, it was "a big effing deal."

Obama still hasn't stopped talking about it. Today, he will fly his 747 all the way out....

...to Iowa, of all places, for yet another shirt-sleeved campaign town hall as if Sunday and Tuesday hadn't happened. And as if there's nothing waiting for him to do back in the Oval Office.

First, some quick cautionary news: As Democrats continue their celebratory end-zone dance, a new CBS News poll warns that an overwhelming majority of Americans wants Republicans to continue fighting the controversial legislation. As in, don't stop your attempted amending and delaying tactics in the Senate. (You can still cast your own vote on the legislation by clicking here and see how the totals vary.)

Not surprisingly, this CBS poll total includes about 92% of Republicans.

However -- insert political alarm here for candidates running in November's midterms -- nearly half of Democrats (41%) and two out of three coveted independent voters want the GOP to continue its challenges. That would make for a tumultuous next several months and an active two-party system again in D.C. As Obama confronts souring favorable ratings.

There will be court challenges to the new bill and repeal attempts that may well nullify or reduce what other polls show is widely considered a presidential accomplishment of some sort -- and reconfirm what everyone knows, even without a poll, would have been a likely term-crippling political disaster had Obama lost it.

Much media attention has focused on Speaker Nancy Pelosi's role, which she hasn't minded. But now we're learning how crucial was the behind-the-scenes lobbying by only the third sitting senator in U.S. history to win the White House.

Each president has brought his own lobbying style to the White House and learned to deploy their executive aura. Some like John F. Kennedy are more eloquent publicly. A veteran deal-making legislator, Lyndon Johnson was impressive, if often crude, in private presidential meetings on things like the Civil Rights Act. (Less successful on the Vietnam War, obviously.) And Johnson had the amazingly effective and self-effacing Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield to smooth his sharp edges.

Obama's already known for his public speaking, and now healthcare lobbying stories feed an impression that he's learning to mask any arrogance in private. Hour by hour and patient phrase by patient phrase, Obama helped quietly turn the backroom tide, one-on-nine and in the case of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, one-on-one too.

Democrats Marcia Fudge, Dennis Kucinich and Barack Obama debark Air Force One ion Cleveland 3-15-10

The scrappy little ex-Cleveland mayor who regularly thinks he's presidential material and bills himself as "America's most courageous congressman" actually competed with Obama on the presidential trail, if ineffectively.

That's actually a bonding experience for pols and another reason why Obama picked Biden as VP.

Kucinich was an outspoken nay vote when a similar healthcare bill squeaked by in the Pelosi House late last year.

Kucinich proved impervious to the partisan and policy entreaties of Pelosi and aides because the legislation went nowhere near far enough in his sometimes humble opinion.

Obama's emerging style involves removing his suit jacket, sitting down face-to-face, taking his professorial time to explain (often with broad hand gestures) why the bill would be good for the country and the people.

He defuses the measure's even significant imperfections by acknowledging them up front and promising to work, like the fellow legislator he once was, to fix and, enticingly, even broaden them over time.

The 6-foot-1 Obama also devotes considerable time to describing in some detail the efforts he's personally put into pushing for passage, the many other important people like his current visitor that he's talked with and how he's directly addressed their concerns as he willingly will any others.

The president invites his target to describe what he/she needs to support the bill, often responding with a repetition of how good the legislation would be for the people of their district and his desire to visit there sometime. On March 4, Obama had nine House members including Kucinich meet next to the Oval Office for more than an hour, impressing them with his earnestness, sincerity, detailed knowledge and diligence.

On March 15, Obama invited Reps. Kucinich and Marcia Fudge to join him on Air Force One for his Cleveland healthcare town hall, where he shared so publicly the sad story of Natoma. Each House member got rare private face time with the chief executive in his in-flight office.

And, a seemingly small thing, but not for Washington types, the president invited them both to join him on the very public walk down the plane ramp on arrival. That's a cost-free executive gesture that inserts these folks into a high-profile, ego-inflating media moment rarely shared with anyone but the presidential spouse.

Kucinich went home from that March evening meeting and told his wife, Elizabeth, "'You know, I kinda feel bad about the situation he's in here. This is really a tough situation -- his presidency is on the line.' And I had a sense of sadness about what I saw him grappling with."

The morning after the Cleveland trip the 63-year-old Kucinich says he went to a favorite Capitol bench to think -- and worry that he could be a decisive vote in the defeat of an imperfect but important healthcare measure, a seed of doubt planted by the president.

Kucinich ended up voting yes this time -- without Obama ever asking directly.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photos: Pete Souza / White House (Obama and Kucinich on presidential plane); David Richard / Associated Press (Fudge, Obama, Kucinich in Cleveland).

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