Lessons for Obama


As President Barack Obama and his staff gear up for the coming assault, they should take stock of what just happened and the valuable lessons they can learn before they close the deal on healthcare or ever take up another significant reform in Congress.

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• Identify a constituency. During Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency, his message of change appealed to anyone — Republican, independent or Democrat — fed up with the Bush era. And associating Hillary Clinton with the establishment and the past — her support of the Iraq war and her failure to reform healthcare — helped Obama defeat her in the primary. In his own healthcare reform fight, Obama has failed to target one group of Americans and speak repeatedly and effectively to them. He must choose between the uninsured who need coverage, the under-insured who could lose their coverage and the well-insured who fear his plan will diminish their coverage, and tell them clearly why his plan will change things for the better. The scattershot messages, about reform being the linchpin to economic recovery; containing costs but not driving up the deficit; stabilizing Medicare but not affecting beneficiaries; a public option only being an option; and the overhaul allowing people to keep their doctors were often contradictory or just didn’t take hold.

• Don’t waste appearances. Obama has made his last public appearance on healthcare reform. Sure, he can head to Ohio or Indiana again at some point to pump up a crowd, but the televised speeches and press conferences are over with. After a while, people just stop listening. For now, his most effective appearances will be behind closed doors, in person, with wavering Democrats. He should use these appearances wisely as well, by stating directly, “You are with us or the party goes down next year” — plain and simple.

• Deficits will shape Obama’s entire presidency. Long after the jobs return, deficit and debt will be with us. The town hall meetings showed that healthcare reform in and of itself is not the source of public anxiety and anger. But the stimulus spending, TARP spending and spending for auto industry bailouts — accumulating in less than one year — created resistance to further government spending. With Republicans planning their political future around this fact, the Obama White House must incorporate it as well.

• The middle doesn’t trust government, even in crisis. The economic crisis may have been averted, but the political center in America hasn’t been convinced that government is responsible for bringing the us “back from the brink.” Until it is, any policies that call upon more government intervention, like a public healthcare plan or the House-passed cap-and-trade bill, will be an easy target for the GOP.

• Jobs are all that matter. As long as Obama finds a way to bring back jobs, he will be able to fend off disappointment, distrust and every other negative emotion Americans are registering in sinking public opinion polls. If he can’t reverse unemployment, no matter what he does to solve any problems here or abroad, the Republicans will keep sending me and everyone else those e-mails asking, “Where are the jobs?”

Finally, Democrats accuse Obama of “over-learning” the lessons from the Clinton healthcare disaster in 1993, and giving Congress no input on reform whatsoever. So the above lessons should be learned, but definitely not “over-learned.”

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.