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."

You might disagree with Brooks's take, but I think his last point is on target: Obama doesn't seem to make his Democratic leaders quake in their boots, even though, to be successful, they need him.

At the New Republic, John Judis says the Dems shouldn't be skittish about soaking the rich:

"House Democrats have proposed to pay for their national health insurance by imposing a one percent surtax on the income tax bill of couples making more than $350,000--that's the top 1.2 percent of households. The surtax would rise to 5.4 percent for households making more than a million dollars. That's pretty small potatoes for the country's high-rolling class, but the proposal has encountered stiff resistance from Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats, as well as from the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

"These critics don't make the obvious complaint--that the tax increases would target high-value political contributors who are important to congressional Republicans and to Democrats who can't depend on contributions from labor unions or liberal professionals . . .

"If the administration were to take the revenue from a tax increase on the very rich and give it to the less well-to-do through government spending or a tax cut, then the result would be a net increase in consumer demand, because the less well-to-do are more likely to spend rather than save what they earn.

"So the result of taking money from the wealthy and giving it to the middle class or the poor through government spending would be a net increase in consumer demand, and a boost to an economy in recession."

Nancy Pelosi has since said she only wants the health tax to apply to couples making more than $1 million. The combined 47 percent tax rate of various Obama policies is hard to defend politically.

National Review's Rich Lowry is in the what's-the-rush camp:

"The stimulus partly drives the rush on health care. The program was so ill-considered and so festooned with irrelevant liberal priorities as the price of hustling it through Congress that it becomes more of a drag for Obama every day. So health care has to be rushed through before Obama pays the full price for the failure of his previous rush job. Haste -- and waste -- makes for more haste.

"Obama cultivated an image of cool during the campaign. Unrattled. Deliberate. Cerebral to a fault. Who knew he'd be in a panic to remake one-sixth of the economy by the first week of August of his first year in office? . . .

"There's a touch of the guilty conscience about Obama's terrible rush. As if he knows he was elected as a moderate-sounding deficit hawk last year, and if he's going to pass an ambitious left-wing program, he must do it before the opposition builds."

How is it not being cerebral to want to push through your top priority before we get into a midterm election year?

The Obama Haters

It sounds kind of fringey, but the Daily Beast's John Avlon says the president's strangest critics are banding together:

"Last week, a U.S. Army major named Stefan Frederick Cook made news when he refused deployment to Afghanistan on the grounds that President Barack Obama might not be a natural-born citizen and therefore is constitutionally ineligible to give orders as commander in chief. Now Cook's lawyer says she has 170 more soldiers willing to file similar protests against the president.

"Welcome to the world of the 'Birthers'--right-wing conspiracy theorists committed to undoing the 2008 presidential election by trying to prove that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. The movement is evidence that Obama Derangement Syndrome is going viral from the far right, proliferating beyond fringe-festival Internet sites. It's in danger of a quiet mainstreaming along partisan lines -- reaching into talk radio, cable news, the armed services, and even the halls of Congress.

"The 170 number thrown out by Cook's lawyer has the feel of Joe McCarthy's claim that he had a list of 205 communists working in Harry Truman's State Department -- i.e. pseudo-specific, intentionally inflammatory, and ultimately bogus. But what's not in question is the nine Republican congressmen who have co-sponsored a bill that, in response to this much-debunked conspiracy theory, would require presidential campaigns to provide 'a copy of the candidate's birth certificate.'

"Asked whether Obama 'is a U.S. citizen,' bill co-sponsor Randy Neugebauer, a Texas Republican, replied: 'I don't know. I've never seen him produce documents that would say one way or another.' "

Cue the Twilight Zone music.

Rush Limbaugh lends his voice, in the context of arguing that tax authorities are harassing him about his residency: "Barack Obama has yet to have to prove that he's a citizen. All he has to do is show a birth certificate. He has yet to have to prove he's a citizen." Lou Dobbs has also raised questions about Obama's birth certificate.

2012 Silliness

This Rasmussen poll is meaningless, 3 1/2 years before the next election and with the leading GOP contender out of the news and not under attack. But here it is for your consideration:

"If the 2012 presidential election were held today, President Obama and possible Republican nominee Mitt Romney would be all tied up at 45% each, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey.

"The president, seeking a second four-year term, beats another potential GOP rival, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, by six points -- 48% to 42%."

Speaking of Palin, meet the Alaska woman -- a former falafel peddler -- who has filed six ethics complaints against her. Meanwhile, the AP reports that "an independent investigator has found evidence that Gov. Sarah Palin may have violated ethics laws by accepting private donations to pay her legal debts."

Naked Outrage

It's been bouncing around the blogosphere for a couple of days, the disgusting story of how a nude video was made of a sports reporter without her knowledge. I thought of writing about it, but didn't want to compound the invasion of privacy and get more people searching for the clip (which YouTube has taken down).

The New York Post splashed it on the cover yesterday -- professing outrage but then compounding the crime by publishing no fewer than three screen shots from the video. And the digital black tape in two of them don't cover very much.

"Sexy ESPN sportscaster Erin Andrews was the target of a peephole pervert who surreptitiously shot a video of her walking around her hotel room naked -- and posted it on the Internet.

"The sideline siren wants the creepy cameraman brought to justice, both for herself and to keep other victims from having to go through the same nightmare."

The same nightmare which we are now showing to sell papers. "Fox & Friends" and, to a lesser extent, CBS's "Early Show" have aired obscured stills from the video. And today The Washington Post writes about it, sans naked photos.

On the sports blog Deadspin, Will Leitch wonders whether there's a collective sense of guilt:

This is not just any sideline reporter snoop video. It's Erin Andrews. If this is Holly Rowe, or Jill Arrington, or Michele Tafoya, this story is over in a day, if it even goes that far. But it wasn't. It was Erin Andrews. She was not called America's Sideline Sex Object: She was called America's Sideline Princess. . . .

"The reason the video has gained such traction, and the reason everyone is so upset -- and I can assure you, I've yet to talk to a single person, blogger, blog reader, ESPN employee, sideline reporter, upright walking normal human being, who wasn't profoundly disturbed by this -- is because we all felt somewhat complicit with Andrews. Everyone felt like they knew her. They didn't, of course. . . .

"Was I ever over the line? Was Bruce Pearl when he hugged her? Was Rick Sutcliffe when he constantly commented on her dress? Was ESPN, and sports media in general, when they realized that attractive women on the sideline helped ratings? Did I contribute to this awful thing that happened? Did all of us? I don't think so. I really don't."

Black in America

Charges have now been dropped against Henry Louis Gates for the crime of trying to get into his own home. WashPost gets the first interview with Gates, who wants an apology:

"There are one million black men in jail in this country and last Thursday I was one of them. This is outrageous and that this is how poor black men across the country are treated everyday in the criminal justice system. It's one thing to write about it, but altogether another to experience it. . . . This guy had this whole narrative in his head. Black guy breaking and entering."

I still find Gates-gate hard to believe, and Toure is ticked off:

"It could've happened to any black man. This sort of thing happens all the time. But this particular instance -- legendary Harvard professor Henry Louis 'Skip' Gates Jr., arrested on his own front porch -- tells you that even if a black man is a brilliant, famous, rich, classy, Harvard professor who's 58 years old, walking with a cane because of hip-replacement surgery, and ensconced in own his Cambridge home during the day, he can still be arrested.

"That's because Malcolm X's 40-year-old quote is still true: 'What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.? A nigger.'

"Some people were thinking, 'We've got a black president, America is beyond racism, we're post racial now.' Some think racism has become a boogie monster that only blacks fear is under the bed, but there's nothing but paranoia.

"Well, after the arrest of Skip Gates, the director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, the most important black academic in the country, we can put all that kumbaya we're-post-racial crap in the toilet."

Recalling Cronkite

Some touching personal remembrances are still coming in, including this one from Roger Simon, who found America's anchorman asking his advice at a 1976 campaign event, and later saw him besieged by autograph-seekers:

"When Fred Harris took the stage and began his speech, people continued to come up to Cronkite. He was just too big for this event, too big for a Fred Harris rally.

" 'You must get this a lot,' I whispered to him, wondering why on earth I was suddenly feeling sorry for Walter Cronkite.

" 'Everywhere,' he said. 'I don't report anymore. Hardly ever. It's almost impossible.' He shook his head. 'That's why I envy you.' "

And on True/Slant, Miles O'Brien recalls trying to convince Cronkite to join CNN's space coverage in 1998:

"We talked about how we would work together covering the launch. And this is when I almost blew the whole deal.

"I made the mistake of telling Walter (actually I think I was still addressing him as 'Mr. Cronkite' -- or was it 'Your Anchorness'?) that he didn't need to worry about the technical details and mission history of the space shuttle -- that I would handle that -- and all he had to do is simply regale viewers with tales of the Mercury 7 glory days. In other words, he would be my 'Wally' (referring to Walter's great friend and Mercury 7 astronaut Wally Schirra -- who sat with Walter through many a moonshot telecast -- including the Apollo 11 landing forty years ago).

"In an instant, the thermostat went down -- the warmth chilled by annoyance. I had offended his journalistic pride in a big way.

" 'If I am going to be a part of this, I need to report the story -- not just reminisce.' he informed me. 'I need research on every shuttle mission so far . . . the dates, the crew, the mission objective, whether the objective was met and any other newsworthy aspects. Can you do that for me?' " They worked it out.


Michael Kinsley and Slate are holding a kind of bake-off on whether you learn more from reading newspapers or Web sites (besides those that regurgitate newspaper content). Let the best medium win!

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