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Will Obama be another 'Comeback Kid?'

By Ed Henry, CNN Senior White House Correspondent
President Obama celebrates with staff on the Truman Balcony of the White House after the health care vote.
President Obama celebrates with staff on the Truman Balcony of the White House after the health care vote.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama celebrates health reform bill with staff on the Truman balcony
  • Obama hits the road on Thursday to sell his health reform message
  • The president's future likened to Bill Clinton's 'Comeback Kid'

Washington (CNN) -- When President Obama went before the television cameras in the East Room late Sunday night after the House's historic passage of health reform, he was careful not to gloat, insisting that it was a "victory for the American people" instead of a win for Democrats.

But what the TV cameras did not capture was the scene a few minutes later, in the wee hours of Monday morning.

Obama quietly invited some of his staff up to the famed Truman Balcony, with its stunning view of the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. Team Obama toasted a triumph that top advisers at least privately acknowledge could turn out to also be a dramatic win for a president who desperately needed one.

"The fact that we could navigate through these rocky shoals," one of those senior advisers told me the bruising health care battle, "is heartening for the future" as the president now tries to push forward on other tough battles like regulatory reform of Wall Street and immigration reform.

This adviser explained that the president thought it was important to keep fighting for health care reform, even when it appeared all hope was lost, "to show we have a capacity as a country to tackle big challenges" at times of great uncertainty like now.

It's Obama's way to cast these battles as high-minded, long-term struggles rather than mere political short-term, hand-to-hand combat. He did so Friday in a rousing speech at George Mason University, in which he mocked the constant media commentary on his standing by comparing it to "Sportscenter" on ESPN.

"What's it going to mean for Obama? Will his presidency be crippled?" the president jibed. "Or will he be the 'Comeback Kid?' "

But even that joking reference to the "Comeback Kid" -- Bill Clinton's nickname after he rose from the dead in the 1992 New Hampshire primary -- is a reminder that Obama is still a political figure who is staring at very challenging midterm elections in just a few months and a likely battle for re-election in only a couple of years.

There's no doubt that White House aides like Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel -- former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and architect of their 2006 takeover of Congress -- have been weighing the political impact of all the health care machinations.

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The bad news for Obama heading into the midterms is that the 2,000-plus page health reform bill, coupled with last year's $787 billion stimulus package, gives Republicans something to run on in November: At a time of deep distrust of government after all the bailouts, Obama is growing it big time.

But the good news for Obama is that the comeback health care victory casts him as a fighter who stood up for the middle class and proved that while it may have been messy, his party can govern.

Coupled with the stimulus, the health reform package also gives Democrats an agenda to run on that includes popular provisions like preventing insurance companies from refusing to cover children because of pre-existing conditions.

"I know this is a tough vote," Obama told House Democrats on Saturday, a rare occasion where he slipped into the role of political adviser. "And I am actually confident -- I've talked to some of you individually -- that it will end up being the smart thing to do politically because I believe that good policy is good politics.

"I am convinced that when you go out there and you are standing tall and you are saying I believe that this is the right thing to do for my constituents and the right thing to do for America, that ultimately the truth will win out."

Obama will begin testing that message for real on Thursday, when he starts hitting the road to aggressively sell the health bill to give nervous Democrats some political cover in the months leading up to November.

And where is the first state that Obama will begin selling that message? Not New Hampshire, home of the first presidential primary, and site of Clinton's dramatic comeback nearly two decades ago. Instead, the president is heading to Iowa for a substantive reasons: It's where he began his crusade for health reform with a big speech in 2007.

But in case you've already forgotten, that state also has the first presidential caucuses in the nation every four years.

A certain guy from Chicago shocked the world there in 2008 by winning against the odds, and he's hoping to deliver the same for his party later this year.