Sunday’s unprecedented presidential tour of (most of) the network news represents a subtle admission on the part of White House strategists that surely must unnerve his liberal allies. Obama, they seem to have concluded, is the only Administration official capable of making the case to the American people. Where, one must ask, are the usual suspects who traditionally man the battlements and carry the president’s message on major policy initiatives?
Take another look at those YouTube videos of Sen. Arlen Specter’s raucous early August town hall meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Sebelius’ shrill demeanor and obvious impatience with the “mob” of Pennsylvania constituents has relegated her to the Administration’s “B” team. The would-be health czar, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, an able communicator and acknowledged health expert, has a permanent seat on the bench for obvious reasons. The current health czar, Nancy Ann DeParle, knows the technicalities of health policy but lacks the communications skills now in demand. And no responsible Administration strategist wants to trust the President’s premier domestic policy initiative, indeed his political legacy, to Vice President Joe Biden.
Meanwhile, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the most obvious candidates for this role are uber-liberals whose popularity begins and ends in liberal enclaves such as Hollywood, San Francisco, and New York City. Thus the Administration’s, and the Democrats’, conundrum: their trained health policy experts are not communicators and their trained communicators are not health policy experts.
No, all roads lead back to the president, who might be forgiven for asking his allies (with apologies to Casey Stengel): Can’t anybody here play this game?
This latest high-profile public relations gambit, of course, comes on the heels of the last high-profile public relations gambit barely ten days ago. His September 9th speech before the joint session of Congress generated a short-lived, 72-hour bump in some polls. A close look at the Rasmussen daily tracking polls both before and since that speech suggest this movement was concentrated among white, middle-aged women who, in any event, have since returned to their pre-speech level of fear and loathing.
What could the president possibly say now that would yield a permanent boost in support for his plan?
First, he needs to clarify exactly what “plan” he supports. Right now, Americans of all philosophical dispositions are reading their own worst fears into their understanding of “the plan.” Conservatives and middle-of-the-road voters hear talk of government-run health plans, higher taxes, trillions in new spending, mandates, fees, fines, and coverage for abortions and illegal immigrants and cringe. Liberals, meanwhile, listen to their heroes downplay the importance of “robust” public plans, fret about the effect the plan may have on employers, and watch them perform back flips to woo moderate Democratic lawmakers and interpret this as code for a corporate-driven sell-out of timeless liberal principles. It’s a debilitating two-front war; only clarity can stem the carnage.
Second, after the president tells us exactly what approach he favors, he needs to descend from the lofty rhetorical heights of the joint session speech and explain exactly how the plan would work, how its provisions would change t he way we will obtain our health care, and why this is desirable. He must honestly and forthrightly discuss the trade-offs that are unavoidable in any ambitious reform of our health system – i.e., whether the mandates, taxes, and fines that will be required to implement his plan will threaten jobs or affect take-home pay; whether reductions in reimbursements to physicians and other health providers will make it more difficult to find a physician; whether the 9 million seniors in Medicare Advantage plans will continue to purchase their coverage from these plans or be forced to return to the traditional Medicare program.
There are no easy answers to these questions. But if the president is to don the mantle of health-communicator-in-chief, he must confront these trade-offs head-on. No more of the “all things for all people” rhetoric that has so tarnished his credibility with the political middle and right.
And if this doesn’t work? What then? A tour of the PBS kids shows, NFL Sunday Halftime roundtables, Iron Chef competitions, the History Channel? Will he plug his plan alongside Barry Manilow on the Vegas Strip?
The president, it seems, is running out of options.