Making the Same Mistake Twice

Obama’s missteps in the health care debate mirror his missteps in last year’s campaign.

The Battle for America 2008 feels familiar—but not because it’s about last year’s election. Authors Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson report a lot of new behind-the-scenes details, so the story feels fresh. What feels familiar are the problems Sen. Obama faced on the campaign trail, which mirror the ones President Obama faces today in selling health care reform.

Now that Barack Obama is president, it’s easy to forget how tough it was for him at times during the presidential campaign, particularly during the primaries. It wasn’t just that he was often behind in the polls. It’s that he sometimes just wasn’t very good. He stumbled in debates. He made distracting gaffes. Frequently professorial, he failed to connect with voters. These are the same criticisms we hear today.

Obama talked to the authors about the messy process of finding his voice. “I’m actually sort of a slow starter,” he said. “In those first couple of months I wasn’t operating on this tight script. [I was] still sort of working out my riff.”

On health care, it’s clear that Obama is still working out his riff. He’s been talking about the subject for months and yet the number of people who disapprove of his handling of the issue continues to rise. In several polls, people now disapprove of his performance more than they approve. He has pushed the idea that health care reform will not increase the deficit—to the exclusion of other arguments he might make—and yet the message is not getting through. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, voters did not believe, by a margin of 72 percent to 21 percent, that Obama will keep his promise to overhaul the health care system without adding to the deficit.

With Congress leaving Washington for the month of August, Obama says he is looking forward to getting the health care conversation out of the back rooms of Washington and into the country. He may be the only one. The conversation in the country sounds pretty ugly. It’s distorted and full of misinformation as partisans from both sides try to whip up their troops. Town halls have turned into shouting matches, and they’re likely to get worse as groups from the left prepare to shout down the shouting groups from the right. There’s even meta-shouting, as the left and right debate the authenticity of the various shouters.

Whatever the outcome of that debate, this much we know: It’s still shouting. If over the last several months, through congressional debates, presidential press conferences, and White House-sponsored town halls, people were unable to hear Obama’s message, they’re not likely to hear him any better now. The passages in Battle for America in which Obama promises to end the partisan rancor and bring a new way of doing business feel very distant in this period of bickering and spitting.

There’s a consensus both inside and outside the administration that Obama has to take control of this conversation. “This is the most precarious time for this legislation,” says former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. “The president’s going to have to stay connected. He must communicate. He can’t afford to lose one day.” The job, says Daschle, is to educate the American people and communicate with the lawmakers who have to defend health care reform back home. Obama needs to give members of Congress public cover—but also ammunition for their local battles.

But how? Obama’s first problem is that there isn’t a single piece of legislation but, rather, five. He can pound on Republicans for delay, but the main holdup right now is the Senate finance committee, which is run by a Democrat. Congress left town having made progress, arguably historic progress, but the five remaining bills, all different, amount to thousands of pages. No wonder the public is confused.

The president will continue to push his emphasis on “health insurance consumer protections” that will improve life for those who already have insurance. And he’ll continue to emphasize that those who have insurance won’t lose it. That’s a tough sell. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll says that 69 percent worry that a government plan will affect the quality of their care. Almost three-quarters think it will limit their access. They also worry about the affect on the economy, with 81 percent saying it will lead to job cuts.

In a Thursday meeting with the Senate Democratic caucus, the president’s advisers also promised that the president and his aides would be going on the offensive in August. Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, and deputy chief of staff Jim Messina first emphasized how well the health-insurance consumer protections polled with voters, continuing the message shift away from focusing on the cost savings from reform. The White House aides also promised that the president and administration aides would be providing political cover for Democrats. That, according to one who was there, means increased attacks on Republicans and a continued effort to single out insurance companies.

Does Obama’s success in the campaign offer any lessons for his health care battle? There are lots of ways that being president is different from running a campaign—you have to deal with Congress, and you don’t always have a ready-made opponent you can rally your supporters against. And you have to make deals you never would have contemplated while trying to court your party’s activists. The New York Times reports, for example, that the White House made a deal with the drug lobby in an effort to sell health care reform.

And in this debate, unlike in the campaign, Obama is not lucky in his opponents (though plenty of his allies think conservatives are overreaching by stirring up confrontation at the town halls of Democratic members of Congress). Republicans may be in bad shape now, but they’re not as dysfunctional as the Clinton and McCain campaigns portrayed in the book.

White House aides know they can’t duplicate many of the stratagems of the campaign. They can’t galvanize their supporters the way they could in the immediate post-Bush era—though they’re trying. But what helped Obama the most during the campaign, Balz and Johnson show, was his ability to learn on the fly. They detail regular acts of self-assessment. There were several candid meetings in which Obama called on his team (and himself) to improve their performance: “The New Hampshire loss revealed characteristics in Obama that served him well through the long campaign—his facility to stay calm under pressure, his capacity for self reflection, his willingness to take corrective action, his determination to keep his team focused.”

The question is how Obama finds this focus, and his voice, on health care. Reading the passages of his stump speeches from the campaign immediately reminds you what’s missing from the campaign to sell reform: the passion and the stories. “I tend to be a storyteller,” Obama tells the authors, explaining how he felt hemmed-in during the quick-answer debates. “The aspirational aspects of my message are rooted in people’s stories and stories about this country.” He’s yet to find his story on health care.

Pollster Stan Greenberg thinks this is a key to Obama’s successful salesmanship of reform. “The Congress can’t win the country for health care reform,” he says. “It’s got to be the president. He’s the leader. … You can’t get there on analysis alone. You gotta get there on emotion.”

One way Obama has been trying to recapture the emotion that made him so powerful during the campaign is to slip back into campaign mode. In New Jersey last month at the end of a campaign stop for Gov. John Corzine, he demonstrated some of the rallying fire he showed so regularly in the last two years. But while Obama knows what he’s fighting against—gridlock, cynicism, lobbyists—he still has to wait for Congress to return in the fall and give him a bill he can fight for. He’ll have to hope that by that time, the American people are still willing to listen.