How the White House lost its message

The White House fumbled the message on healthcare reform and left President Barack Obama’s administration hanging in the balance, according to Democratic lawmakers and senior aides.

In his first year, Obama failed to use the bully pulpit effectively and rally the public around one proposal early in the debate, despite polls showing strong support for core elements of the Democratic plan, the lawmakers and aides told The Hill.

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That left an opening for Republicans, who convinced the public that the White House was pushing a massive government takeover of healthcare.

“We did a very poor job in framing this debate and presenting the issues to the America people. I don’t think the White House used its bully pulpit effectively,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, a centrist Democrat from Louisiana who came under strong pressure from the GOP to oppose the Senate bill.

A senior House Democratic aide put it even more bluntly: “We lost the message fight on healthcare.”

Democrats say a challenging communications job was made more difficult by competing legislation and the absence of any clear direction from the White House on which approach was best.

“There were so many bills,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), noting that two Senate committees and three House panels produced legislation.

“That was the problem with the approach,” said Feinstein. “No one ever knew what you were talking about and [the president] spoke in general terms; he didn’t say, ‘Here’s my bill, it’s on the Web.’ ”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary to former President Bill Clinton, said Obama’s press team has faced the most difficult media environment in 40 years.

McCurry argued that the diminishing influence of daily newspapers and network television, combined with the raw, chaotic power of cable news, talk radio and the Internet, has made it very difficult for White House advisers to manage the message.

“They’re adjusting to the new history they’re in,” McCurry said of Obama’s press team. “They’re utterly encumbered by the historic transformation of the media itself.”

McCurry noted that when Clinton served as president, two-thirds of Americans got their news from nightly television broadcasts. A 2008 Pew Research Center poll showed that only 32 percent of the public regularly learned of political news from nightly network broadcasts.

In an attempt to respond to huge changes in the media environment, McCurry said the White House press operation has undergone the biggest transformation since the administration of Richard Nixon, who established separate offices for the press secretary and the communications director.

McCurry said Obama has held about the same number of formal press conferences as his predecessors, but many more targeted media interviews.

Mark Feldstein, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, who is writing a book on Nixon’s press operation and its impact on subsequent presidencies, said Democratic presidents have typically lagged behind Republicans.

Feldstein said the Nixon administration marked “the beginning of the modern White House propaganda machine,” which he said former President Ronald Reagan and his aides perfected.

Feldstein ranked Obama’s press operation in the bottom half of presidents since Nixon.

“It’s been surprising how weak the Obama message machine has been since he has been elected president,” Feldstein said. “Too often they’ve turned to Obama’s oratory to save the day as a last resort to clean up the message mess.”

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Democrats say the messaging defeat is frustrating because polls show most Americans support the components of pending healthcare legislation, such as healthcare subsidies, insurance exchanges and a ban on discriminating against pre-existing medical conditions.

But Democrats are optimistic this week could mark a turning point in the healthcare debate because of the bipartisan healthcare summit at the White House on Thursday. A significant development, lawmakers and aides say, was the release of Obama’s healthcare proposal on Monday.

The proposal hews closely to the Senate bill but includes important changes demanded by House lawmakers. Democrats say this will give them a single platform to rally on. The summit, they say, will put pressure on Republicans to offer competing proposals.

“It could potentially be a very smart move,” said Landrieu.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said he wanted the president to become more engaged in the effort to pass a bill. He said he sees signs that is happening now.

Lanny Davis, a White House counsel in the Clinton administration and a columnist for The Hill, said the Obama administration had difficulty managing the message on healthcare reform because of what he called a “cacophony” of Democratic voices on the complex issue.

Liberal lawmakers and activists made loud demands for a government-run insurance program, while centrists such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) insisted on spending weeks negotiating an elusive compromise with Republicans on his panel.

Democrats on Capitol Hill also sparred over whether to tax millionaires or high-cost health plans to pay for the proposal and whether to impose a mandate on employers.

But Democrats acknowledge they were also hurt by wonky policy jargon, such as Obama’s repeated pledge to “bend the cost curve,” while Republicans used visceral arguments to turn the tide of public opinion. The most prominent example was the Republican-fostered rumor that healthcare reform would institute so-called “death panels” to ration care for the elderly and infirm.

“They used the politics of fear,” Feinstein said of the GOP.

Feinstein said the time has come for Obama to become fully engaged in the healthcare debate, claiming his presidency is at stake.

“I would urge the president to play a very dominant role, to use his bully pulpit and to push,” Feinstein said. “He has now, essentially, in a sense staked his presidency on this bill.”