Will Obama's Health Care Summit Be Political Theater or Substantive Dialogue?

Will today's health care summit be political theater or a substantive dialogue?

WASHINGTON, Feb. 25, 2010— -- What happens when you put President Obama, members of Congress and three cameras in one room -- bipartisan compromise on contentious health care legislation or pandering for the television audience?

The White House has made it clear what it hopes to achieve in today's six-hour, televised health care summit with a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

Obama said last week he wanted Republicans and Democrats to sit down and talk about health care "in a spirit of good faith."

"I don't want to see this meeting turn into political theater, with each side simply reciting talking points and trying to score political points," he said in his weekly address. "Instead, I ask members of both parties to seek common ground in an effort to solve a problem that's been with us for generations."

Given the differences between the two sides, and the clock ticking to get something done, is there any chance of actual progress at today's summit?

Dee Dee Myers, a Democratic consultant and former Clinton White House press secretary, called the summit "a high wire act" for both Democrats and Republicans.

"The White House has a lot at stake and the Republicans are genuinely irritated," she said.

Republican strategist and former Bush White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the Democrats don't have a great spokesman other than Obama, which puts the president in a "weird position" going into the health care summit, serving as both advocate and arbitrator.

"He's got his own bill, he's the leader of the party, he supports the Democrat proposals that came out of Congress -- but yet the way they've structured the meeting, he is theoretically an arbitrator," Fratto said. "The president isn't sitting down as an impartial actor here. He's got a very clear position that he's been advocating for some time."

"This is a time for him to be the president of the United States and not the leader of the Democratic Party," Democratic strategist Steve McMahon said of Obama.

The Strategy for Both Democrats and Republicans? Show Willingness to Compromise

Republican strategist and former Bush White House Press secretary Dana Perino called the summit "preposterous."

"We all know what this is really for: [The Democrats] basically said this was to try and show the Republicans to be the 'party of no,'" Perino said. "I think they've been the party of 'no bad policy,' the 'Party of K-N-O-W' -- know what's in this bill."

The summit could play out like a high-stakes chess match with each side carefully pondering its next move and statement in order to maximize positions and negotiating power.

McMahon said Obama has "nothing to lose" by sitting down and reaching out to Republicans, even if it means risking friction within his own party.

"He's already all in," the Democratic strategist said of the president. "This is something that he's going to wear for the rest of his presidency whether it goes well or doesn't go well."

Myers said Obama wins "if he looks reasonable and smart" -- so the Republicans have to try and "force an error."

But how do the Republicans shake Obama off his game given his reputation as Mr. Cool-as-a-Cucumber?

"They want to show him as uncompromising, not really interested in bipartisanship and determined to go ahead with a bad bill," Myers said of the Republicans. "They want to make [going forward] politically unpalatable and impossible for Democrats."

McMahon said Obama and the Democrats need to go into the meeting with five or six compromise items they can agree to and put them on the table before the Republicans.

"Ask Sen. Mitch McConnell or Minority Leader John Boehner, 'If we put this in a bill can you get your members to support it?'" McMahon said.

On the other side of the table, Perino said Republicans should go in and point out there are things they can agree with Democrats on -- such as affordability, pre-existing conditions, competition across state lines and tort reform.

"If I were the Republicans, I would go in there with a calm purpose and they should feel really good because they forced [the Democrats] into this," Republican strategist Perino said. "The Democrats did not choose to be bipartisan. If they wanted to be bipartisan they would have had the summit last year."

The Bipartisanship Revolution Will Be Televised

Fratto said this is the "biggest stage" Republicans will have on health care, "so their challenge will be to frame their goals in a way that is reasonable and acceptable to the American people."

He cautioned that both Democrats and Republicans need to remember to stay out of the weeds.

"I think if they get too far into the details of individuals pieces it's just going to get lost on everyone," Fratto said. "But if they can have a good discussion of what the basic goals for health care reform should be, and that there's a genuine effort on both sides to agree on that, then I think they will have gone a long way towards moving the ball forward."

Today's entire session will be on camera, fulfilling a promise Obama made on the camera trail of opening up all of the health care negotiations to the public. That has not happened through this point of the debate.

Political strategists disagree on whether putting the discussion on camera will help or hurt the attempt at bipartisan cooperation and progress.

"It makes it much less likely there's going to be" anything to come out of it, Perino said. "You can't be blunt. The camera changes the dynamics. People play to the cameras or they're nervous, not themselves. "

Democratic strategist McMahon disagreed and thinks the media coverage could be the reason something tangible comes out of the summit.

"It's because of the pandering to the cameras that there is a greater chance of something happening," he said, noting that each side can choose to be constructive or obstructive and will be conscious of how that posturing will play out on television.

Myers said that both Democrats and Republicans "obviously want to control their sides so nobody makes a mistake -- but something is going to happen that is going to define that day."

"It becomes a public relations battle," she said. "And the outcome will depend in a lot of ways on the unexpected things that happen in that room."

"It's a high wire act for both sides, because you don't know what that moment is going to be," she said.

Republican strategist Fratto said that opening the meeting up to cameras may, in fact, reduce the partisan blame game.

"Behind closed doors, you can definitely get some things done if there's a willingness and intention to get some things done," Fratto said. "If there isn't, you walk out of the meeting and both sides give their readout as to why nothing happened, and you can point fingers to the other side."

"With cameras there, everyone will be able to watch and make their own judgments as to who is being serious and who has legitimate points or not," he said.