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President Barack Obama and his family are on vacation and, for a while anyway, the angry, disfigured faces of the health care town halls have faded from the news. But we know what’s waiting for him when he gets back—more of the same—and so far he hasn’t been handling it well. Supporters are urging him to fight, and some of us are expecting that pretty soon he will don his explainer-in-chief cape and put the whole health care debate to rest with a definitive explanation of why failure is not an option.

But so far, not so good. The problems are dramatically evident in the president’s retreating poll numbers; his job approval rating was down to 51 percent in August from 57 percent a month earlier in the most recent Quinnipiac Poll. On his handling of health care, 52 percent say they disapprove—up 10 points from a 42 percent disapproval rating last month. That growing antipathy toward the president may also be showing in the poll numbers in the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, and the White House would be wise not to underestimate the damage losing one or both of those races would do to Obama’s legislative agenda.

The drop in public support for Obama’s health reform effort is a clear sign of the GOP’s success in muddying up the debate to their advantage. Unburdened by the need to govern or present an alternative, Republicans have reduced the debate to a question of costs. Democrats have yet to ably put those concerns to rest.

What Republicans have managed to do is raise sufficient public concern to make enough Democrats skittish about fully embracing the president’s reform effort. Particularly in the House, Democrats are aware that they are on the ballot next year. The president is not. Which means they will take whatever flak is aimed at him. The big question that will emerge from these dog days of August is whether this skittishness turns into outright fear. If that happens, health care is dead.

Enter Virginia and New Jersey. Polls in both states show that the Democrats are in trouble. In both cases, according to Real Clear Politics’ average of recent polls, the GOP candidate is leading by 14 points.

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Let’s say that Democrats lose one or both of those seats. If those losses are seen as a repudiation of Obama, Democrats in marginal districts—or those faced with a tough challenge—are likely to distance themselves from Obama. And they’ll do it by trashing his health care plan. This is the obvious political strategy, but it poses a monumental threat to Obama’s entire domestic agenda.

If the president’s unpopularity will cost Democrats seats, they will abandon him without hesitation. So expect to see Obama spend a lot of time campaigning in Democratic areas in both states this fall. Earlier this month, he held a fundraiser for the Virginia gubernatorial nominee, R. Creigh Deeds, who is trailing Republican Robert F. McDonnell by 51 percent to 37 percent in the latest Public Policy Polling survey.

Still, the White House seems to be aware of what they are up against. Organizing for America, the president’s transformed campaign operation, put out an e-mail a couple of weeks ago with the subject line: “Beating the Scare Tactics.”

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“Members of Congress have been home for just a few days, and they're already facing increased pressure from insurance companies, special interests, and partisan attack organizations that are spending millions to block health insurance reform,” it lamented.
The e-mail went to everyone on the campaign’s e-mail list and urged them to call their congressman about health care: “It's up to us to show Congress that those loudly opposing reform are a tiny minority being stirred up by special interests, and that a huge majority strongly supports enacting real health insurance reform in 2009,” it said.

The effort to keep Democrats on the reservation will, by necessity, have to go through Virginia and New Jersey. The GOP is counting wins in these states to reestablish some credibility with voters, but Virginia may be more concerning for Obama and Democrats.

While Democrats often fall behind in New Jersey, only to have the state reassert its essential blueness in the end, Virginia was crucial to the new Obama coalition. To lose it would be a blow to the coalition. To lose it badly would suggest a return to an old electoral map that is very problematic for Democrats.

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If there is one thing that members of Congress do well, it’s counting votes. And they do not want to be on the losing end of this health care debate.

One troubling finding for Obama in the Quinnipiac polls was the loss of support among white men. While his support among white women remained unchanged, his rating among white men has fallen 14 points since April. That is how you lose Virginia and every Blue Dog Democrat who can see his district reflected in that conservative state.

Enjoy the down time, Mr. President.

Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.