Topic A -- Pollsters, Pundits Map Obama's Summer Strategy

Topic A
Sunday, August 9, 2009

As Congress goes into recess, The Post asked pollsters, political experts and others what the president should focus on this month. Below are contributions from Mike Lux, Donna Brazile, Dana Perino, Dan Schnur, Douglas E. Schoen and Shannon Brownlee.


Democratic political strategist; special assistant to the president for public liaison, 1993-95; author of "The Progressive Revolution: How America Came to Be."

This is the most important August recess in modern history. President Obama has gambled big by staking the fate of his presidency on health care. The debate this month -- in thousands of town hall meetings, demonstrations, news conferences, speeches and ads -- will decide whether members of Congress come back determined to get something important done or determined to take the easy path and sweep the issue under the rug. The alliance of insurance company money and "birther" mobs has raised the stakes even higher.

Obama should announce that he is canceling his vacation and traveling to every swing senator's state to meet with them on their home turf and to participate with them in town hall meetings. He needs to declare that business as usual in Washington is done and that he will not rest until we have real health reform. He should be clear: He will not cave to demands of insurance companies that oppose a public health-care option. He should rally his supporters to the cause, not just with occasional e-mails but in speeches calling on them to take to the streets and knock on doors until the bill is passed.


Manager of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign; author and political commentator

President Obama must use the August recess to regain his momentum by convincing bailout-weary voters, who are worried about their own financial security, that his agenda -- especially health-care reform and his stimulus plan -- is beneficial to the average American family. The economy is getting better, but Main Street isn't feeling relief. And since most Americans aren't likely to for some time, it would be a mistake for the White House to start shouting "The economy is working" too loudly and too soon.

There are, however, things that the president must communicate loudly and immediately: how the average American will benefit from comprehensive health-care reform. How it will help families control their health costs. How it will help save the economy from further erosion. Why it will not force folks to lose their benefits or access to their doctor or current plan.

Most of all, Obama needs to convince people that his agenda will help the American family survive this crisis and that he will redouble his efforts to control wasteful spending.

The president deserves a rest, but he should not rest his voice. Blessed as he is by a hapless opposition, he needs to gather his strength and revamp his message for a hectic September that will determine how much further he can take his agenda.


White House press secretary to George W. Bush

Usually in the summer, Americans tune out Washington. This year they're paying attention, and that's not good for the White House. The president needs to regroup.

Five months after passing the stimulus plan, the facts show it failed to stimulate. That got people nervous about big, new, costly proposals that seemed rushed and half-baked. Democrats spent July fighting about health-care reform, and they lashed out at critics. Then they rubbed the spot on the wall by denigrating citizens who were exercising their right to free speech -- arousing populist anger by responding to it. Many realized too late that it would have been fine for them to wait until September to make their big push. Plus, the multitude of messages diluted the president's strongest ability -- to communicate. They had him talking a lot but convincing no one.

It's a good idea for the president to head for higher ground and get some time to think and to listen. The most important thing he can do this month is enjoy his vacation with his wife and daughters. They'll give him a boost, while his team hopes they can change the narrative and the tide of declining public opinion this fall.


Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign; spokesman for George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign

President Obama has to build support for health-care reform, and the only way to do that at this point is to actually get behind a plan. His supporters don't know what they're defending -- a public plan or a co-op, taxes on insurance companies or high-income earners, more or fewer price savings from drugmakers -- and his opponents are going after the weakest aspect of any of the half-dozen plans bouncing around the Hill. A little clarity could go a long way.

Whenever the Obamaites get in trouble, they point with justifiable pride to the strategic crossroad they faced in the summer and fall of 2007, when they were being criticized for not going after Hillary Clinton's campaign more aggressively. Instead, they waited, trusted their internal clocks and political instincts, and exhibited a level of patience and restraint rarely seen on the campaign trail. Most politicians tend to be victims of their own success and resist changing an approach that's worked for them in the past, even when circumstances are different. But if Obama wants health reform, it's time for him to get in the game.


Democratic pollster and author

President Obama's approval rating has been steadily dropping, and polls show that support for most of his policies is hovering perilously close to 50 percent. This month the administration must make the case that it still represents the change Americans can believe in.

Americans want economic growth, deficit reduction and, most of all, jobs. First, the president must use Friday's encouraging jobs report to make the case that economic recovery -- however halting -- has begun and that the recession's end may be on the horizon. Obama and his advisers must convince the country that their economic policies, such as the $787 billion stimulus package, whose effectiveness has been questioned as the unemployment rate surged, have begun to produce the desired results.

The administration needs a deal on health care. It is critical that it reach some sort of bipartisan compromise or a consensus among Democrats in the House and Senate. Such a deal would probably derail the intense opposition to health reform seen in polls and town-hall meetings nationwide.

To reach bipartisan or Democratic consensus, Obama should avoid pushing for far-reaching measures that would attempt to cover all 47 million uninsured immediately and move instead toward incremental expansion of care. His plan should be based on principles supported by legislators in the House and Senate, Republican and Democrat alike: gradual expansion of coverage to the uninsured, cost containment to reduce the deficit, and health insurance that guarantees portability and catastrophic coverage, regardless of any preexisting conditions. By framing his plan around these core principles and tying them to the broader economic recovery, Obama can strengthen his position in the polls and take steps to avoid the fate President Clinton and the Democrats faced in the 1994 midterm elections.


Senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and author of "Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer."

President Obama should focus on a few things over the recess. He could emphasize that those who are saying things such as "health-care reform is going to kill your grandmother" and "health-care reform is going to bankrupt the country" are doing so for cynical, political reasons. Those people have no argument with the fact that we have to get costs under control, and they probably agree that we have to cover everybody. Many opponents of health-care reform simply want to see Obama fail.

More substantively, the president should make the case that getting costs under control will not happen overnight. Several provisions in the various health reform bills are a step in the right direction in terms of getting a grip on health-care spending. But we can't expect that the very year we cover everybody we're also instantly going to see costs fall.

Obama must also emphasize that controlling costs the right way will mean better health care, not rationing. Our health-care delivery system is broken. It is not serving patients well: It's dangerous, it's inefficient, it's providing care that patients don't need and not giving them care that they do need. Americans deserve better. Congress has only just begun to discuss these aspects of reform, and the president should reassure the public that we will see legislation that both covers the uninsured and begins to address our chaotic, dysfunctional delivery system. A system that provides safer, more effective care will ultimately bend the cost curve, and the public needs to hear that.

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