Acknowledging that he hasn’t persuaded the American public and Congress to support sweeping changes to healthcare, President Obama offered a humbling admission Sunday: His message is sometimes not “breaking through.”
“I think there have been times where I have said, ‘I’ve got to step up my game in terms of talking to the American people about issues like healthcare,’ ” he said during an unprecedented spree of appearances on five Sunday television news shows.
Asked if he had lost control of the healthcare debate at those times, the president said: “Well, not so much lost control, but where I’ve said to myself, somehow I’m not breaking through.”
The president’s Sunday blitz -- which skipped Fox News Channel -- marked yet another effort to explain to a divided public why he is trying to remake the healthcare system. Taped on Friday at the White House, his appearances on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Univision followed a prime-time address to a joint session of Congress this month and a series of town-hall-style appearances and rallies across the country aimed at reviving the fervor for “change” that propelled Obama into the White House. He also plans to be on David Letterman’s “Late Show” tonight, a first for a sitting president.
The media venture underscores the administration’s confidence that Obama is the best salesman for his policies.
But his critics suggested that people had heard the president’s message -- they just weren’t buying it.
“Actually, he has broken through. People don’t like what he is selling,” said Alex Castellanos, a Washington-based Republican consultant and campaign media expert. “This is not a communications problem.”
The phalanx of TV appearances presents a risk for the president, as does his broader strategy of staking so much political capital on a healthcare overhaul, said Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster who served President Clinton.
“If he doesn’t get a bill, he’s been on five Sunday shows, David Letterman, and, if he doesn’t move the needle, it’s hard to see how he wins. And the midterm elections become very problematic” for his party, Schoen said. “He is doubling down, betting the ranch and putting it all on the line on the basis that his communications skills are superior and that he can carry the day.”
With the proposed healthcare overhaul, Obama and supporters in the Democratic-controlled Congress are promising better health insurance for Americans who already have it and coverage for millions lacking it -- without raising taxes on anyone who earns less than $250,000 a year. They are also aiming to rein in healthcare costs that are consuming a large part of the family budget and, through Medicare and Medicaid, the federal budget.
“I don’t think I’ve promised too much at all,” Obama said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “Everyone recognizes this is a problem. Everyone recognizes the current path we’re on is unsustainable. . . . We know that standing still is not an option.”
Republicans are not the only ones resisting Obama’s plans. So are some lawmakers in his own party.
Many liberal Democrats insist that any healthcare overhaul must include a “public option” -- a government-run health insurance plan to compete with private companies. That’s anathema to Republicans and many conservative Democrats.
House Democratic leaders say they cannot pass a bill without a government-run insurance program, but it appears that the Senate cannot pass a bill that includes one.
Obama insists he has not given up on the public option, even though he has said that it’s negotiable.
“I absolutely do not believe that it’s dead,” he said on Spanish-language Univision. “I think that it’s something that we can still include as part of a comprehensive reform effort.”
The president calmly addressed the fervor of recent protests and the public debate, suggesting that much of the vitriol aimed at him stems from a natural fear of “big changes” in government -- and not, as former President Carter has suggested, because opponents cannot accept the fact that an African American is president.
“Unfortunately, we’ve got . . . a 24-hour news cycle where what gets you on the news is controversy,” Obama said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “What gets you on the news is the extreme statement. The easiest way to get 15 minutes on the news, or your 15 minutes of fame, is to be rude.”
Speaking about his political opponents’ stance on healthcare, Obama said on Univision’s “Al Punto Con Jorge Ramos”: “I think that the opposition has made a decision. They are just not going to support anything for political reasons. . . . There’s some people who just cynically want to defeat me politically.”
The president has called for a civil debate, and analysts said his steadfastness and calmness set a certain tone.
“First, he is the administration’s best spokesperson,” said John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. “Second, he gets to be the story, as opposed to others, such as Jimmy Carter, who can muddle and undermine the message.”
Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, lauded Obama’s strategy.
“It is a smart move to saturate the Sunday interview shows,” West said. “This gives the president a chance to dominate the news cycle and get his views on healthcare into the papers. You cannot buy that kind of publicity.”
Asked about the risk of putting so much on the plate without winning any converts, West said: “Presidents have to communicate, because if they don’t, their opponents will fill the void.”
Those opponents were ready for the Sunday media blitz.
Michael S. Steele, the Republican National Committee chairman, followed Obama on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“The president said a lot without saying anything,” Steele said. “There was nothing that moved the needle on this debate.”
But Castellanos, the Republican consultant, suggested that Republicans had failed to reach the public with their own healthcare proposals -- leaving Obama to benefit from the absence of a clear GOP alternative.
“If the Republicans have failed at anything, it’s to be clear enough that there are alternatives to what he is proposing,” Castellanos said.
But he suggested that the president’s words could be lost in a storm of controversy -- amid conservative commentary on television, the recent tax protester march on Washington and the sheer length and contentiousness of the healthcare debate.
“When you drop a pebble in a still pond, you make ripples,” Castellanos said. “When you drop a pebble in a stormy sea, you change nothing. . . . He dropped a few pebbles in a very stormy sea.”
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Topics of discussion
President Obama took the unusual step of appearing on five Sunday morning talk shows. Here is some of what he said.
“Right now, I’m pleased that basically we’ve got 80% agreement. We’ve got to work on that other 20% over the next few weeks.”
-- CNN’s “State of the Union”
ON THE ECONOMY
“I want to be clear that probably the jobs picture is not going to improve considerably -- and it could even get a little bit worse -- over the next couple of months. . . . And we’re probably not going to start seeing enough job creation to deal with . . . a rising population until sometime next year.”
-- CNN’s “State of the Union”
ON CIA INTERROGATION ABUSES
“Nobody is above the law. . . . I have no interest in witch hunts, but ultimately the law is the law, and we don’t go around picking and choosing how we enforce it.”
-- CNN’s “State of the Union”
“Race is such a volatile issue in this society. Always has been. It becomes hard for people to separate out race being . . . part of the backdrop of American society versus race being a predominant factor. . . . Are there some people who don’t like me because of my race? I’m sure there are. Are there some people who vote for me only because of my race? There are probably some of those too.”
-- ABC’s “This Week”
“We’re not going to put the cart before the horse and just think that by sending more troops we’re automatically going to keep Americans safe.”
-- CBS’ “Face the Nation”
“Unfortunately, we’ve got . . . a 24-hour news cycle where what gets you on the news is controversy. What gets you on the news is the extreme statement. The easiest way to get 15 minutes on the news, or your 15 minutes of fame, is to be rude.”
-- NBC’s “Meet the Press”
Source: Times staff reports