What's the Message?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009; 9:25 AM

After chatting with Jim Lehrer, Meredith Vieira and Katie Couric over the past couple of days, what is President Obama going to say at tonight's presser that he hasn't said before?

Why does his pitch for health-care reform seem to be falling flat while special interests and Republican critics are picking apart every sub-section they don't like?

This is Obama's fourth evening meeting with journalists, and it's a significant card to play, since he's asking CBS, NBC and ABC to give up an hour of lucrative programming. It's a measure of Obama's status as a box-office draw that he's on pace to eclipse the number of prime-time news conferences held by Bill Clinton and both Bushes, who had trouble getting the big networks to cover them. (Susan Boyle apparently trumps Obama; the White House moved the presser from 9 to 8 p.m. after NBC, which didn't want to preempt its exclusive interview with the British amateur, balked.) And Obama will follow up Thursday by letting Terry Moran do a day-in-the-life for "Nightline."

So having commanded the public's attention, how does the president break new ground? He's been saying in speeches and interviews that we must do health care now before the opportunity slips away; that costs and the system itself are out of control; that you can keep your own doctor if you want; that no one who makes less than $250K will pay higher taxes, and that his plan won't add to the deficit.

In front of the cameras yesterday, Obama sharpened his rhetoric slightly against "the special interests" trying to "maintain a system that works for the insurance and drug companies." But his basic message was the same as it was with Vieira, where his most memorable answer was probably his defense of wearing dad jeans at the All-Star Game.

The president made an apt observation with Couric: "The easiest way to keep your poll numbers up and garner good press is to do not that much in this town."

The details, of course, are complicated, from individual mandates to Medicare reimbursement rates, while the criticism -- it's way too expensive, will raise taxes and won't hold down costs -- is not. Obama excels at giving thoughtful answers, but my sense is that he's not breaking through on this. He speaks in paragraphs but not in sound-bite rallying cries. And ultimately he needs to be leaning on his own Dems to hammer out a compromise.

David Brooks, a conservative who's spent quality time with Obama, slams health care as part of a "liberal suicide march":

"The party is led by insular liberals from big cities and the coasts, who neither understand nor sympathize with moderates. They have their own cherry-picking pollsters, their own media and activist cocoon, their own plans to lavishly spend borrowed money to buy votes . . .

"Every cliché Ann Coulter throws at the Democrats is gloriously fulfilled by the Democratic health care bills. The bills do almost nothing to control health care inflation. They are modeled on the Massachusetts health reform law that is currently coming apart at the seams precisely because it doesn't control costs. They do little to reward efficient providers and reform inefficient ones . . .

"Who's going to stop this leftward surge? Months ago, it seemed as if Obama would lead a center-left coalition. Instead, he has deferred to the Old Bulls on Capitol Hill on issue after issue.

"Machiavelli said a leader should be feared as well as loved. Obama is loved by the Democratic chairmen, but he is not feared. On health care, Obama has emphasized cost control. The chairmen flouted his priorities because they don't fear him."

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