Slow To Obsess

Obama held only one health care event in his first four months in office?

One of the theories going around about Barack Obama’s political problems is that he has talked too much on health care reform and not enough about the economy. It’s not just pundits who say this. Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson made a similar claim, arguing that Obama should not have started on health care first but put more effort into resuscitating the economy.

But for a president obsessed with health care, Obama didn’t seem that obsessed at first. Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama’s first public event devoted to health care reform. It wasn’t a memorable event. And it took him 43 days as president to get there. And after that one event, Obama didn’t make health care the occasion for another in-person appearance for more than two months. (On May 12 he met with business leaders to talk about spiraling health care costs.) That means that during almost the first four months of his administration, Obama held one health care event.

By contrast, the economy got all the president’s attention He couldn’t stop talking about it. He promoted his Recovery Act, stumped for credit card reform, and announced plans to create energy jobs. In those first four months, he held 59 economy-related gatherings, one-quarter of the total of his public events (counting meetings with foreign leaders and celebrations with sports teams and Easter egg rolls).

The president’s first week in office was particularly intense for its economic focus. In his first public remarks after his swearing-in, Obama said rebuilding the economy was his first task. He never mentioned health care. His next public remarks took place before a bipartisan meeting on the economy. A few days later, after meeting with the Republican caucus, the president said “the main message I have is that the statistics every day underscore the urgency of the economic situation.” Two days later, he made a speech on the economy. Over the course of that first week, he mentioned health care only vaguely and in passing.

How the president spends his public time is not the only way to determine an administration’s focus. But it’s a rough proxy, and it certainly influences the way people perceive the president’s priorities. That’s why now that Obama is in the final push for health care, we see him devoting his energy to it. He’s spoken twice on the issue in less than a week. Next week he’ll hit the road with at least two more health-care speeches.When did the president switch his emphasis to health care?

Starting June 5, according to CBS’s Mark Knoller, who keeps meticulous records of these things, Obama started his intense push. Between that date and Oct. 5, he held 32 health care speeches or events. The weight he gave the issue at the end of the year meant he spoke about it 52 times before the anniversary of his inauguration. Still, that doesn’t mean he stopped talking about the economy. By the end of his first year, the president had talked about the economy twice as often.

Arguing that Obama was obsessed with health care to the exclusion of the economy helps to explain the fall in his approval ratings. (If people didn’t think he shared their primary concern then they were unhappy about it.) And it supports the charge that he was clueless about the biggest problem facing voters. It might seem that health care is all Obama has ever talked about, but in the months when he set the tone for his new administration the president wasn’t talking about health care at all. He no doubt hopes that passage of the legislation will usher in another such blissful period.

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