August 7, 2009


Making the Same Mistake Twice: Obama's missteps in the health care debate mirror his missteps in last year's campaign. (John Dickerson, Aug. 6, 2009, Slate)

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."

From Iowa to his swearing in the UR made 5 significant speeches. After his victory speech in IA he promptly lost NH. His European speech was universally ridiculed as platitudinous drivel. He ended up having to give two damage control speeches after his Reverend Wright explanation. His Convention Speech was a disaster. And his Inaugural was so awful that his fans had to argue that he was intentionally trying to depress people lest they expect much from him. And ask yourself this: do you remember anything he said in any of those speeches? Well, other than pretty much calling his grandmother a racist? The awkward fact for Obama rooters is that -- unlike Reagan and Clinton in particular -- allowing him to speak tends to set the cause back rather than advancing it. And he just can't seem to stop talking...

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 7, 2009 8:12 AM
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