First-term presidents, like congressmen on the run and baseball teams contending for the pennant, have to get serious after Labor Day. They're all running out of the margin where mistakes are not always fatal.
Frightened congressmen, who will be returning to Washington all shook up from facing the music of angry and resentful voters back home, are desperate to find a little reassurance. But there is none. Their mantra for September is "slippage," as in, "my prospects for re-election may be slipping away." Going home to look for a job is the congressional fate worse than death.
President Obama, reveling in his reputation as Mr. Cool, is pursued by angry demons of his own, demons mostly called "independents." Everybody's public-opinion polls show the Obama approval numbers among independents -- the crucial percentage in every election -- slipping for the first time below 50 percent. Rasmussen puts it under 40. The dilemma for both the president and his Democrats is that whatever the president does to help himself hurts his congressional allies, whatever the congressmen do to help themselves damages the president.
The president must get something from Congress that he can call "health-care reform," even if it's only a bottle of aspirin for every third family in America. Asking Congress to enact a step toward full government takeover of American medicine is asking congressmen to commit suicide. As popular as this might be with their constituents, it's not likely. The discontent of summer becomes the focused rage of autumn.
When the going gets tough the president always lays a bet on his teleprompter, and Mr. Obama will spend the weekend clearing his throat at Camp David while his aides tune the teleprompter's chips and diodes for the big speech to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night. Such invitations by Congress are usually reserved for declarations of war or a welcome back from an assassination attempt; the last such speech to a joint session was George W. Bush's reassurance to the nation just after 9/11.
This Congress is happy to oblige. Maybe the president and his teleprompter at last have something to say about a rescue. What could be more solemn, more grave and more important than saving a few congressional hides?
With his sinking approval numbers, the president has little standing to ask Congress for much if the members feel the ground slipping away. Most of them, particularly the freshmen, still don't understand what happened. They arrived in town in January with enormous majorities, ready for a cakewalk with a president widely believed capable of delivering "change." No one seemed to care what that "change" actually was. When his critics mocked him as "the messiah" many of his awed admirers in press and tube took the accolade seriously. Maybe he really was divine, sent from heaven or at least from Olympus. How could anyone or anything stop the unstoppable Democratic tide?
How indeed? The Republicans were lost in the swamp, with neither a hero nor a white horse in sight. There was no one there to pick up a falling flag, to sound a message and find a way to make it sing. What happened next was scariest of all for the Democrats. With Republicans looking for the fainting couch and the smelling salts, the public took charge of the debate over health care and started banging hard heads together.
Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi looked over the landscape and, where others saw democracy at work in all its messy glory, saw only hoodlums, brownshirts and swastikas. The more the media derided the protests, the stronger and louder they grew.
Congressmen at bay have always retreated for cover at home. This time they will scramble into Washington looking for relief, like that banged-up Union army racing for cover after a congressional picnic at Manassas. This is the audience waiting for Barack Obama, and the angry public will be listening along with Congress for something new.
The president, still in love with the sound of his voice even if nobody else thrills to it in the same old way, follows a tough act after the smoke and noise of the town halls. Will he get the wingnuts on his left in campaign mode by telling the Republicans to drop dead, as many of his wingnuts demand he do? Will he concede to sanity and common sense, and drop, at least for now, the scheme for government takeover of health care? The days dwindle down to a precious few, and so do his options.