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What if Obama fails on healthcare reform?

In the end, Democrats may simply not have enough votes to pass healthcare reform. If that happens, the rest of Obama’s agenda would be cast into doubt, and the possibility of a tidal-wave election this fall would increase.

President Barack Obama speaks about healthcare reform at the Walter F. Ehrnfelt Recreation and Senior Center in Strongsville, Ohio, Monday.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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It is an outcome that the Obama White House and its loyal supporters are absolutely not willing to entertain in public: failure to pass comprehensive healthcare reform.

Everyone knows it’s a possibility – that when all is said and done, the Democrats may simply not be able to garner enough votes to pull off the complicated legislative maneuver required to pass reform. The goal is to get it done by Sunday, when President Obama plans to head abroad. But if not, then what?

“The failure of healthcare reform would be very devastating for the Obama administration,” says Darrell West, director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It would cast doubt on his entire presidency.”

The layers of devastation would go deep, he and others say: Failure would disillusion Mr. Obama’s progressive base and discourage all the people who worked on behalf of his campaign. It would leave the big Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress – in addition to Obama himself – open to the charge that they are incapable of leading. It would increase the possibility of a tidal-wave election in the fall midterms.

The rest of Obama’s agenda would be cast in doubt. He has already signaled a desire to tackle financial regulation, immigration, and campaign-finance reform next, but if he can’t pass healthcare, he will have no momentum.

Some Democrats from Republican-leaning districts and states locked in tough reelection battles may be relieved by a defeat of health reform, but they still will have little to show for Obama’s first year in office. The public simply has not been impressed by the argument that the administration saved the nation from going off the edge of a cliff, economically.

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