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White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who spent part of his August break fishing out West, offered a wry response when asked earlier this week what the administration’s plan is for health care. “Catch more fish,” he e-mailed back.

Whether the tongue-in-cheek reply was designed to disguise changes underway inside the White House as President Obama and his team prepare for a fateful fall — or a recommitment to the exceedingly patient approach that has marked the president’s health care strategy — won’t be clear until Congress returns. But it’s difficult for the White House team to argue that August was a successful month for the president.

In August, the legislative battle on Capitol Hill gave way a noisy public debate over health care waged sometimes angrily in town hall meetings from one corner of the country to the other. Obama’s team would argue that the president and his allies have been able to rebut the worst of the inflammatory — and false — charges about the legislation pending in Congress.

That may be right: the fate of the legislation is not likely to turn on the issue of death panels. But in other ways, the month of August left the administration no better and perhaps worse off than they were when Congress left town.

The administration’s wobbly rhetoric about the public option brought a backlash from liberal supporters of health care. They are now threatening to turn the fight for retaining a public option in the bill into a crusade. At a time when the president needs unity among his supporters, they are divided. How high a price will Obama have to pay to try to reunify the Democrats, and will he follow them or will they follow him?

The cause of bipartisanship moved into reverse during August, though not for anything Obama did or didn’t do. In this case, two Republicans who the administration had hoped could be leaders in helping to work out a bipartisan bill unexpectedly turned harshly partisan in their rhetoric.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, sounded increasingly like a politician worried about inching away from his conservative base than a secure congressional leader anxious to solve one of the nation’s biggest and most persistent problems — the cost and availability of health care.

Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, another member of the Gang of Six on the Finance Committee, gave the Republican radio address on Saturday and sounded like someone spooked by the angriest of the town hall meetings. Rather than seeking consensus, he seemed more anxious to draw lines in the sand.

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