The Sunday Take

The Take: Obama, Advisers Turn to Lessons of the Campaign

Advisers say the way Barack Obama handled two crises during his campaign could serve as a model during the health-care debate.
Advisers say the way Barack Obama handled two crises during his campaign could serve as a model during the health-care debate. (By Alex Brandon -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ask White House officials where the debate over health care stands and they sometimes sound as baffled as everyone else. They've watched the angry town hall meetings. They've gotten reports back from Democratic lawmakers of civil and productive discussions. They've seen President Obama on the road in front of generally friendly crowds.

"I think the answer is, no one truly knows," senior presidential adviser David Axelrod said. "I know there's relentless campaigning going on. The impact of it is not clear to me."

Another adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, "We always knew how challenging health care was. We knew it in the campaign. It's really compounded by trying to do it in a very tough environment. I think a lot of the stuff we've been doing lately is right. You've just got to figure out how to penetrate the message war."

At this point in the debate, the president's team says several things are clear. One is that Obama has taken a hit this summer because of health care and other factors. Another is that he is not continuing to fall. "There's no doubt he took a dip, but things are stable," Axelrod said. Better news about the economy, he argued, has helped cushion the effects of the health-care debate. "There's been some stabilization."

A third thing White House officials say is clear is that they need to start winning the war of words in preparation for legislative bargaining this fall. The president has tried to regain the offensive with town-hall-style meetings in New Hampshire, Montana and, late Saturday, in Colorado. In sessions in New Hampshire and Montana, Obama faced few of the fireworks that some lawmakers have encountered, but those meetings provided helpful forums for refuting false claims about the legislation and for rebuilding public support for acting on health care this year.

In private, the president has been even more intensely focused on developing a strategy for winning the health-care debate once Congress returns next month. He held two lengthy meetings with top advisers last week -- one devoted to legislative strategy, the other for a detailed review of the policy options that could form the basis for a compromise bill.

Obama agreed to the request of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to give the "Gang of Six" (three Democrats and three Republicans) until Sept. 15 to produce a bipartisan compromise. After that, Obama is prepared to move in other directions -- although not necessarily by abandoning some of the ideas the committee has been discussing. The committee's work will probably be central, whether or not Republicans are on board.

"The president's view is they wanted another month and a half. We gave them a month and a half," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said. "We had a final meeting with them. We hope that process will achieve something, but if it doesn't, that's not the end of getting health care done."

John Podesta, who heads the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, said Obama must be ready to move when that mid-September deadline arrives. "My view is either they have to have a deal or he has to say, 'This is what we're going to do,' " he told reporters Friday. "Whether that happens with Republican support or not, I think this thing can't drift all the way through September."

The president and his team are receiving lots of advice from allies frustrated that the White House has not been more aggressive in firing back at reform critics and in attacking a strategy they think is designed to bring down Obama's presidency. These allies fear he has lacked the passion necessary to rally public support and has been too passive in giving Republican congressional leaders a pass for some of the most outrageous attacks by opponents.

There are two moments from the presidential campaign that provide some insight into why Obama and his team are handling the debate as they are.

In fall 2007, Obama was under considerable pressure to attack Hillary Rodham Clinton. She had a substantial lead in the polls and his campaign was treading water. What was needed, some of his nervous allies argued, was a vigorous assault on Clinton.

In September 2008, Obama faced another round of criticism from his Democratic allies. This came after Republican John McCain had selected Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate and the polls began to move in McCain's direction. Advice flooded into the Obama campaign, and the second-guessing from outside reached extraordinary levels.

In the first case, Obama resisted the harshest recommendations. He found a way to draw clear contrasts with Clinton without, as Robert Gibbs -- then his campaign communications director, now his White House press secretary -- said at the time, "kneecapping" his rival. Obama thought that a sharp turn into negative politics of the kind advocated by some allies would cost him more in the long run.

In the second instance, Obama's team made clear it wasn't ready to panic even if some allies were. Campaign manager David Plouffe said famously that it would not be influenced by "hand-wringing and bed-wetting" from inside the Democratic family. Privately, however, Obama ordered advisers to step up their games and he pledged to do the same.

Much the same appears to be happening now. Obama's team is resisting advice to take a harsh line against the angriest of the protesters and toward Republican leaders who appear to be encouraging those citizens. In large part, that's because Obama doesn't feel comfortable adopting that posture. But he is reportedly frustrated that his message hasn't broken through. He is using his August road show to recalibrate -- something he has often done in the past when struggling with his message.

"The passion in Washington for polling and this notion that every day is Election Day is not one we share," Axelrod said. "That is exactly the psychology that has made it impossible to deal with big challenges before. I guarantee you the president is not sitting in his office poring over polling data. . . . You asked what his state of mind is. His state of mind is, he was elected to try to solve big and stubborn issues and that's completely where his focus is."

That worked for Obama as a candidate. Will it work for him on an issue as complex, personal and politically charged as health care?

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