– McClatchy News Service

WASHINGTON – Just before midnight Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel sent an e-mail to aides who had helped win passage of the historic health care overhaul. “Take a moment to celebrate tonight,” Emanuel wrote. “It’s onto the next one tomorrow.”

President Obama spent 14 months getting to this moment, but aides said Monday that he wouldn’t spend much time savoring it. He plans an aggressive campaign to clarify what the bill does and try to deflect a Republican counterassault. And other policy goals he had postponed in favor of health care now jump to the front of the line.

Obama is to sign the health care bill in a ceremony today. Two days later, he’ll travel to Iowa City, where as a presidential candidate he had unveiled his health care proposal.

Iowa is only the first stop in what will be a concerted White House effort to explain a bill that many Americans don’t understand.

“This is an administration priority,” a senior White House official said Monday. “And we’ll use the administration to make sure we are a heavy part of the playing field in defining not just what’s at stake anymore, but what it means now that health care reform is the law of the land.”

Much as Obama might like to change the subject after the yearlong slog, he has no choice but to sell the bill to people who remain skeptical, analysts said. Health care is likely to be a dominant campaign issue in the November midterm elections, putting pressure on the White House to make the case for the bill and defend Democrats who voted for it.

Part of his aim is to neutralize opponents who have cast the bill as an expensive government takeover of health care. If voters accept that caricature, Democrats will have an even tougher time staving off losses in the midterm elections.

Obama’s Cabinet will also be part of the effort to reshape public perceptions, with events tailored for cities and rural areas.

“If this is going to be turned into a real asset for Democrats, the president and others have to be out there in a continual effort to sell this plan,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. “Just letting it lie is not good. It’s got to be sold, sold actively and sold vigorously. Otherwise, it will become a liability.”

For now, White House aides are happy to have pocketed a victory. On Monday, they looked weary, but gratified, after monitoring the vote and attending a post-midnight celebration with the president.

As lawmakers voted Sunday, Obama watched the proceedings with his staff.

When the bill reached the magic number of 216 votes in favor, Obama gave a high-five to Emanuel. He went around and embraced senior staff members including Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, senior adviser Pete Rouse and legislative liaison Phil Schiliro. Aides said it felt like an election night.

Later, after delivering nationally televised remarks in the East Room, Obama invited dozens of staff members to the Truman Balcony, overlooking the South Lawn, for champagne.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to ruin a good party with a speech,’ but he thanked all of us for our work and reminded us that these are the kinds of things we were sent here to do,” the White House official said.

With health care legislation nearly complete, aides said the White House was refining its agenda for the year.

The administration’s next major initiative will be a renewed push for a sweeping set of financial regulations.

A regulatory measure passed the House in December without any Republican votes and is pending in the Senate. Although bipartisanship has been virtually nonexistent in Congress, White House officials think electoral politics gives them a strong chance of passing the financial regulation bill.

With elections in November, “I don’t think you want to go home and prove to voters you’ve been fighting for banks,” said the White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity so he could speak freely.