It’s Time for All to Recharge Their Batteries

by Stuart Rothenberg August 10, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the photograph on the cover of this newspaper’s July 28 edition is worth an entire library.

The photo, showing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) looking straight ahead in a trance-like state and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), slightly out of focus, standing just behind her, is a modern political version of “American Gothic,” the famous 1930 Grant Wood painting.

But it’s more than that. It perfectly captures where the country and the Congress are after the first six months of the Barack Obama administration.

Almost every time that I have seen Pelosi either in person or on TV since she became Speaker, she has looked bright-eyed, often with a big smile on her face. Like Hoyer, her deputy and sometimes adversary, she is an energetic legislator who clearly relishes the spotlight and the day-to-day grind of politics.

But the Roll Call photograph reveals a very different side of the Speaker — as a 69-year-old woman who looks just plain worn out. Hoyer, who turned 70 in June, looks as serious and as fatigued at Pelosi. Together, they are a couple of senior citizens who have had an unusually hectic six months.

It has been 11 months since the nation’s financial services industry began to implode, leading to a dramatic increase in government intervention in the banking sector and then the automobile industry.

During that time, we’ve had a presidential election and inauguration, multiple bailouts, a massive economic stimulus package and a Supreme Court vacancy and nominee. We’ve also had multiple developing political scandals featuring Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R), former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a close Pelosi ally.

Then there has been the cacophony of chatter about cap-and-trade legislation, health insurance and health care reform, taxes, and spending. And I didn’t even mention Cabinet appointees who dropped out, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Bernie Madoff, Sarah Palin or Dick Cheney.

The White House has been in “crisis” mode for the past six months, in part as a way to ram controversial legislation through Congress. But while that strategy helped bring swift passage of the stimulus bill, it has lost much of its steam.

Both legislators and many in the public are simply tired of all of the chaos, and waiting an extra month or two or three to get the best health care bill possible doesn’t seem like a huge price to pay. And, of course, it isn’t — except that delay increases the chances that Republicans will be able to derail the entire package.

One of the problems Democrats now face, and this includes the strategists at the White House, is that there have been so many estimates, promises, warnings, deadlines and projections that it’s hard to take any of them very seriously at this point.

Does anybody really believe the president when he talks about how many jobs will be “saved” or created by the passage of a particular bill? Does anyone really know whether the Congressional Budget Office’s projections about savings (or the lack of savings) from a House Democratic health care bill are on the money? Would any sensible person really believe projections coming out of the Center for American Progress on the left or the Heritage Foundation on the right?

Often I don’t know what to believe, so I don’t believe any of them. And I’m willing to bet that a lot of Americans feel the same way.

It’s certainly not that voters have any greater faith in the Republicans these days. Polling doesn’t show dramatically increased confidence in the GOP or in Republican leaders.

It’s simply that all of the activity of the first six months of the Obama administration has created enough skepticism and doubt around the country and on Capitol Hill to make things much harder for the president and Congressional leaders than things were in February or March.

Democrats continue to have a couple of considerable advantages. While the president’s job approval numbers have slipped, they remain good. And he is still a strong communicator. Voters still have greater confidence in the Democratic Party than in the GOP on most of the key issues of the day — though no longer on the deficit and taxes.

A month away from Washington, D.C., even to try to “sell” the Democratic health care agenda, could well re-energize Pelosi and Hoyer. And given the intensity of the legislative sprint that started at Obama’s inauguration, both parties — as well as the American public — could use a breather.