The Note: Summits & Slippage — Obama Talks, But is Public Listening?

By Caitlin Taylor

Jul 30, 2009 8:15am

By RICK KLEIN President Obama has some national conversations going. That doesn’t mean he’s going to like what ends up being said. As surely as beers on the White House lawn won’t solve racism, the latest deals reached in the House and Senate won’t make health care reform happen. Those deals mark progress, but they should be cast in the same light as the beer summit (minus the liquid geopolitics): Manufactured events, solving short-term problems more than long-term issues. If the pieces come together as Democratic leaders want, they’ll have something — actual bills, through actual committees — to point to as progress when the air wars of August begin. Yet the president’s larger problem on health care remains: Liberals and conservatives, both Democrats and Republicans, just plain disagree with him about the urgency and the solutions. And the public isn’t convinced: While Obama presses his case, new information flowing into the political formula has helped the other side of the debate. If members of Congress were queasy before, every round of polling gives them more reason to delay, or just refuse. New polls tell the story, again: “President Obama’s ability to shape the debate on health care appears to be eroding as opponents aggressively portray his overhaul plan as a government takeover that could limit Americans’ ability to choose their doctors and course of treatment, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll,” Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee-Brenan write in the Times.  “The percentage who describe health care costs as a serious threat to the American economy — a central argument made by Mr. Obama — has dropped over the past month,” they write. “Mr. Obama’s job approval rating has dropped 10 points, to 58 percent, from a high point in April.” Time magazine poll: “By significant margins, survey respondents said they believe the final health-reform legislation is likely to raise health-care costs in the long run (62%), make everything about health care more complicated (65%) and offer less freedom to choose doctors and coverage (56%),” Michael Scherer writes.  A third poll, to make it a trend: “Support for President Barack Obama's health-care effort has declined over the past five weeks, particularly among those who already have insurance, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found, amid prolonged debate over costs and quality of care,” the Journal’s Laura Meckler writes. “In the new poll, conducted July 24 to July 27, 42% called it a bad idea while 36% said it was a good idea. Among those with insurance, the proportion calling the plan a bad idea rose to 47% from 37%.”  The president tells Time’s Karen Tumulty that nobody’s tried anything “of this magnitude” since LBJ: As for the polls: “I don't spend a lot of time looking at my polls. I do look at the polling on health care, partly because I think that there is a terrific case to be made to the American public. But it is — this is complicated, it's difficult,” the president said. “And I will say that this has been the most difficult test for me so far in public life, trying to describe in clear, simple terms how important it is that we reform this system. The case is so clear to me.”  On why it’s now referred to as “health insurance reform”: “Well, I think partly because we're just trying to provide some additional definition.” Think he reads the polls? Karl Rove, in The Wall Street Journal: “Facing numbers like these, Mr. Obama is dropping his high-minded rhetoric and instead trying to scare voters. . . . This is not a healthy way to wage a policy debate. It also risks making the president look desperate at a time when his proposals are looking increasingly too expensive for Americans to accept.”  The case for urgency is not yet made: “One of the most difficult things to do in a democracy is react to a problem that is real, but not immediately threatening. Obama is trying to do this in two monster areas, health care and climate change,” Time’s Joe Klein writes.  Where he’s not quite LBJ: “President Obama has been surprisingly reticent about explaining his vision for health care reform,” Princeton history professor Julian Zelizer writes for The New York Times. “The problem is that he has neglected to keep working on the message.”  The state of play: “House Democrats appear to have made a breakthrough on a health care reform bill [Wednesday] by resolving differences within their own party, keeping President Barack Obama's hope alive for substantial progress before lawmakers take their summer break,” ABC’s Z. Byron Wolf, Dean Norland, Kate Barrett, and Lindsey Ellerson report.  And yet: “I heard from key negotiators in both the House and the Senate side who said, 'Don't be surprised if we don't finish this until Christmas,’ ” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reported Wednesday on “World News.” “No guarantees, but we’re farther along,” Stephanopoulos said on “Good Morning America” Thursday. “What you’re learning, though, is that whatever health care bill emerges . . . will be smaller, will cost less, will have less government involvement than some of the original plans suggested.” “This bill, even in the best-case scenario, will not be signed — we won't even vote on it probably until the end of September or the middle of October,” Obama said at a town hall meeting in Raleigh, N.C., per ABC’s John Hendren, Karen Travers, and Jon Garcia.  No votes for a while, yet “the agreement comes at a crucial time for Obama and his congressional allies,” Noam N. Levey and Janet Hook report in the Los Angeles Times. “The fiscally conservative Democrats had blocked progress on the legislation in Waxman's committee for more than a week, threatening to leave House discussions in disarray as lawmakers prepared to leave town for their August recess.”  “The American people are ready for us to slow down and . . . read what we are voting on,” Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., tells The Washington Post’s Lois Romano.  But: “The weakening of the public insurance option incensed some liberal Members, with Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) declaring she would vote against the bill,” Roll Call’s Steven T. Dennis and David M. Drucker report. “More resistance came from within the Blue Dog Coalition itself, with some in the 52-member bloc saying the plan still costs too much.”  “I think this completely cripples the public option,” Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus, tells The Washington Post’s Paul Kane and Shailagh Murray.   ”House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spent half of Wednesday finalizing a deal with the Blue Dogs — and the other half quelling a brewing rebellion among progressives who think conservatives have hijacked health care reform,” Politico’s Glenn Thrush reports. “Liberals, Hispanics and African-American members — Pelosi’s most loyal base of support — are feeling betrayed after House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) reached an agreement with four of seven Blue Dogs on his committee who had been bottling up the bill over concerns about cost.”  In the Senate — a Congressional Budget Office score of only (yes, only) $900 billion. “The group still has not announced a final deal, but this type of cost analysis is sure to move the debate forward (and to inform what happens in the internecine health reform cost battle that has beset Democrats in the House),” ABC’s Z. Byron Wolf reports.  Upshots: “A House leadership deal with Blue Dogs and an aggressive marketing push by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) shifted the healthcare debate sharply toward centrist positions Wednesday, sparking threats of rebellion from the left,” The Hill’s Mike Soraghan, Jeffrey Young and Jared Allen report.  Coming to a TV near you: “The healthcare overhaul fight in Washington is bursting into America’s livingrooms, and interests from many bands on the political spectrum are trying to transform an often wonky debate over 1,000-page bills into an emotional pitch that can be captured in 30 seconds,” Lisa Wangsness writes in The Boston Globe. “The airwaves blitz is intensifying as Congress prepares to return home for its monthlong summer recess without having cast crucial first-round votes on legislation. Political parties, unions, consumer groups, the healthcare industry, and disease activists see the next six weeks as pivotal in driving public opinion and influencing lawmakers’ votes on healthcare legislation this fall.”  As for the Audacity of Hops — Sgt. Joseph Crowley and Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. join President Obama for a beer outside the Oval Office at 6 pm ET Thursday. The incessantly overanalyzed menu is Red, Lite, and Blue — as in Red Stripe for the professor, Bud Light for the president, and Blue Moon for the officer, per ABC’s Scott Mayerowitz.  “Cold beers on a hot night, with a topic that could be scorching,” ABC’s Jake Tapper said on “Good Morning America” Thursday. And the Gates and Crowley families will get tours of the White House, Tapper reports. The event is delicate for the president in that it’s his creation — he elevated the arrest by commenting on it at his press conference, and he kept the story alive by suggested a beer summit. “Today is the moment that they hope closes this whole conversation down,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos said on “GMA.” “The American struggle with race flashed back into the national debate when Obama — the country's first black president — inserted himself into the angry give-and-take between the policeman and the professor,” per the AP’s Steven R. Hurst. “That was in stark contrast to Obama's history-making run for the presidency, when he was at pains to play down race, prompting some to call him a post-racial candidate.”  “Obama is usually so careful with language, and so attuned to the sensitivities of race, that watching him blow this answer was like seeing Larry Bird miss a free throw,” Margaret Carlson writes in her Bloomberg News column. “What happened on that Cambridge porch traveled to a press conference in the East Room of the White House and now ends at a picnic table on the lawn a few feet away. Obama can’t promise a Rose Garden but he can offer two people, both decent, both misguided that summer morning, a place to raise a glass to seeing life from both sides now.”  As for the business end of those pints: “The president's plan to toss back a few cold ones with some high-profile guests at the White House has the American beer industry hopping mad,” The Wall Street Journal’s Robert Tomsho reports. “The problem is that all three beers are products of foreign companies. Red Stripe is brewed by London-based Diageo PLC. Blue Moon is sold by a joint venture in which London-based SABMiller has a majority stake. And Bud Light? It is made by Anheuser-Busch — which is now known as Anseuser-Busch InBev NV after getting bought last year by a giant Belgian-Brazilian company.”  What works better for a couple of Massachusetts residents than a Bay State beer? “Not knowing the preferences of those invited, I would like to suggest you serve a beer from the largest American-owned brewing company; that being Sam Adams,” Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., wrote in a letter to the president Wednesday. “We both share a common interest in fostering the success of American-headquartered companies.”  Six months into the job, Attorney General Eric Holder sits down with ABC’s Pierre Thomas.  On whether investigations of Bush-era abuses are possible: “We want to move forward. We don't want to look back in that regard,” Holder said. “My obligation as the head of the Justice Department is to make sure that the laws are followed and to the extent that we find that laws were broken, to hold people accountable.” "I think the department, at least some of the people who worked, simply lost their way," he said, citing tactics like waterboarding, which he considers torture. "I will follow the facts and the law wherever it takes me." And on the future for detainees: “The possibility exists that there could be people who are held in a preventative way under the laws of war," Holder said. “I think that by closing Guantanamo, by prosecuting people, be it in Article III courts, or in military commissions, we will make the American people safer than they are now.”  Your Business Week headline: “Obama Tells BW He's Not Antibusiness.”  Part of what the president said: “I will tell you that if you talk to ordinary Americans right now, they feel at least as cynical about business as they are about government. And part of my motivation here is to channel what is going to be, I think, a lot of populist energy in a constructive way that does not end up preventing us from continuing to be the most dynamic, innovative economy.”  House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., takes on the czar culture: “By appointing a virtual army of ‘czars’ — each wholly unaccountable to Congress yet tasked with spearheading major policy efforts for the White House — in his first six months, the president has embarked on an end-run around the legislative branch of historic proportions,” Cantor writes in a Washington Post op-ed. “At last count, there were at least 32 active czars that we knew of, meaning the current administration has more czars than Imperial Russia.”  Get ready for a special election in Texas — and, before that, a chance for Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, to choose his rival’s replacement: “The Republican race for governor devolved into a schoolyard taunt of who should be the quitter Wednesday, after Kay Bailey Hutchison said that she would resign her Senate seat within four months to challenge Rick Perry full-time,” Christy Hoppe reports for The Dallas Morning News. “Resigning her Senate seat will leave her rival with the plum task of hand-picking her successor. But it will untether her from difficult votes and the Washington commute so that she can devote herself to the campaign.”  Coming Thursday: a hearing on Fair Elections: “On Thursday, July 30th, the Committee on House Administration will hear testimony on a new plan to overhaul the nation’s campaign finance system and end candidates’ longstanding reliance on special interest contributions. The bipartisan, bicameral Fair Elections Now Act (HR 1826), introduced by Congressmen John Larson (D-CT) and Walter Jones (R-NC), would provide public grant and matching funds to qualifying candidates who raise a minimum of 1,500 small donations from their constituents in amounts of $100 or less.”
The Kicker: “We would hope they would pick a family-owned, American beer to lubricate the conversation.” — Bill Manley, spokesman for the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.  “We just hope the next time the President has a beer, he chooses an American beer, made by American workers, and an American-owned brewery like Genesee.” — Statement from Genesee Brewery of Rochester, N.Y.
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