New Voices of Power: Anita Dunn
INTERVIEW OF ANITA DUNN, White House advisor
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2009
ROMANO: Welcome, Anita Dunn, the White House Interim Director of Communications and a very Senior Adviser to Barack Obama now and during the campaign. Thanks for joining us today.
DUNN: Well, thank you for having me, Lois.
ROMANO: So let's start with some news.
ROMANO: During the campaign, the President promised transparency. Yet, the Secret Service has denied a request to release the visitors logs for the White House. What's going on with that?
DUNN: Well, Lois, the reality is that we're actually talking about the most appropriate way to make sure that we have as transparent a government as President Obama promised when he was Candidate Obama, and we've come a long way just since the beginning of this administration.
We now have our Open Government Project that we've been working on to make things more transparent, to get things posted more quickly.
We obviously are posting the text of bills before they get signed.
We've worked very hard to open up this process, and we're going to continue to really push ourselves to make this as open and transparent as possible.
For example, we have health care meetings here in the White House that are live-streamed on our website. You didn't get that in previous administrations.
So I think that as we move forward, you should expect to see many records open in terms of this White House.
ROMANO: Including the visitors logs?
DUNN: Well, I'll tell you, we--we are going to continue discussions on that, but I think that at the end of the day, you're going to see a very open White House here.
ROMANO: June figures are at 9.4, fast approaching double digits. You all thought the stimulus package would start to bring those numbers back down. What are you--what are you going to tell the American people?
DUNN: You know, you just have to level with the American people. The reality is that when Barack Obama took office, this nation was shedding jobs, hundreds of thousands a month.
Every month since the Recovery Act has been in effect, the number of jobs that we lose has dropped. So, clearly, the Recovery Act is having a significant effect, but let's be realistic. The economy was in a deep tailspin when he took office, and it's going to take a while. And it is going to continue to become worse probably, especially when it comes to unemployment.
Is it acceptable that we're only losing 345,000 jobs, as we did last month? Of course not. His standard is very simple: When do we start creating jobs?
So, you know, nobody predicted--no one predicted in November and December that the economic downturn was going to accelerate as it did in January and February. If the Recovery Act hadn't been in place, it's safe to assume that that acceleration would have continued. Certainly, we wouldn't have been able to cut the number of jobs that have been lost, the way we have, but it's not good enough, and we're not satisfied until we get to long-term sustainable economic growth. That's why the President talks about his new foundation, which is, you know, putting the building blocks in place, so that we don't have an economy that goes from bubble to bubble, high-tech bubble burst, housing bubble burst. We need the kind of long-term growth that is what his economic program is designed to produce.
ROMANO: There's been some buzz that--that there might be need for a second stimulus.
ROMANO: Do you see anything like that on the horizon?
DUNN: Well, the first stimulus has only been in place a little over three months. You want to give these things time to work.
You know, there's a lot of evidence to suggest the economy has stabilized. It's certainly--you know, at least the--the down--the downturn has decelerated. So it's not as fast, not as severe as it was.
You know, we're going to continue to look--continue to work to put those long-term programs in place that we need for long-term growth and continue to work with Congress to monitor the situation and see what else is needed.
Let's not forget that's a very big Recovery Act that was signed in the--in the wintertime, that the money started to flow, but the big chunks of it come this summer and come in the future.
So you're starting to see effects now, particularly summer when you've got construction season; in particular, road-building season here. You've got a lot of projects that are started, a lot of jobs being created out there, a lot of jobs not being lost out there because of the Recovery Act. We will continue to work with Congress to monitor the situation.
ROMANO: What do you think this administration's biggest communication disaster has been so far?
DUNN: Well, that's a difficult one because I'm not even sure they've had one. I'm trying to think.
ROMANO: Well, can I prompt you?
DUNN: I was going to say, can you give me some suggestions?
ROMANO: What about Gitmo, closing Guantanamo, how that was portrayed to the Congress, to the people, to everybody?
DUNN: It's a difficult issue. I think of all of the issues that the President inherited when he took office, that the issues that he needs to face, that this one, one of the most challenging. A huge part of it is in the legal process, which I think people in this country don't always realize.
I think that, you know, he went out, and he did what he does best, which is to talk directly to the American people and to make a speech, to put it in context, to explain how he got here, where we're going to go, to make sure everyone understood it wasn't going to be easy, but that at the end of the day, his standard for making decisions is what is going to keep Americans and America safe in the future and what will--what will make us a stronger nation.
ROMANO: But--but, Anita, I mean, would you--would you agree that--that there wasn't enough information put out and maybe not enough research done where these prisoners were going to go? I mean, the administration got a pretty strong rebuke from Congress, you know, voting to take the 80 million back because they--there were no plan.
DUNN: Well--and the reality is that there will be a plan, and perhaps we were premature in asking for the money without the plan, but a lot of those Members of Congress also supported closing Guantanamo, which has become a symbol internationally of--you know, of an America that people want to move past.
I think if you look at the President's speech in Cairo, if you look at the reaction we've had internationally as he has talked to people of the world to say we are going to move forward, we would like to have a different relationship with you, that the--the reality is that--the reality is that he is going to be--engage the world in a different way from his predecessor. People wanted change; this is a huge change. We'll work with Congress along the way, and at the end of the day, he will achieve his goals, and we'll be a stronger nation for it.
ROMANO: Why didn't he release the photos of the abuse that had happened?
DUNN: Well, as he said at the time, you know, if he had felt that that was--if--that that was going to add to the discussion, if it was going to be a meaningful thing, he would have done it, but that his judgment was that at the end of the day, all it would do would be to put our troops in harm's way and to create more risk for them, and that as commander-in-chief, he wasn't going to do that. The fact is it's not a secret that there were abuses. You know, he is the President who called for a halt to those practices. So it is not clear what at the end of the day would have been added to the dialogue by releasing more photos designed to inflame emotions--
DUNN: --around the country against our troops.
Were he defending the practices--
DUNN: --it would be different. He halted the practices. So what at the end of the day is he trying to hide? Nothing. He's trying to protect American troops.CHAPTER 1 CLOSE CHAPTER 2 OPEN
ROMANO: Let's turn to health care.
ROMANO: A lot at stake for this Presidency, for the Democrats. No Democrat in recent political history has been able to do health care reform.
As a communications expert, how--what are the challenges that you're facing on selling this reform to--to everyone, to the stakeholders, to the American people?
DUNN: Well, the challenge when you're trying to sell change is very simple. It's those people tend to be concerned if they think they're going to lose what they have and if they like what they have. So I think that the centerpiece of the President's health care policy, during the campaign as a candidate and now as President, has always been if you like what you have, if you like your doctor, if you like your health care plan, nothing's going to change, except in the long run you're not going to have to pay as much for it because we're going to bring down the cost of the health care system.
So the first challenge is to reassure those people who actually don't feel like they need dramatic change, that nothing will change.
The second, though, huge challenge is to convince the people of this country that given the challenges of long-term health care costs, what they do to our deficit, what uncontrolled Medicare/Medicaid spending are doing, that it is worth the investment now to save the money in the long run.
And the reality is that, you know, with--if we do nothing, one out of every five dollars in our GDP in 2020 is going to be going to health care. Now, that's unacceptable. That's not how you stay globally competitive. That's not how you build a long-term sustainable economic growth, but the reality is health care has always been a challenge. As we like to say, if it was easy, somebody else would have done it.
ROMANO: In recent weeks, you've all talked a lot about cutting costs for the consumer, and you've talked less about the 47 million uninsured people. What--is that tactical? Is that a tactical decision, you're not emphasizing the 47 million uninsured? Is there a concern that the American public is not going to want to foot the bill for them?
DUNN: Well, Lois, the reality is this. Barack Obama said as a candidate that he had met a lot of people who didn't have insurance, but he'd never met anybody won didn't want insurance. He met a lot of people who couldn't afford insurance. And at the end of the day, health care reform is about cost.
DUNN: It's about cost if you have it; it's about cost if you don't have it. People would like to be able to buy health insurance, quality, good health insurance at a reasonable cost. Affordability, availability, and access are the three A's of health care.
Now, the reality is that people who have health care are paying too much. Families in this country see their premium--premiums increase by double digits. They see the cost of their deductibles and their copayments going up every year. They find out they think they have health insurance until they really need it, and then they discover that maybe the insurance isn't so good, their--their pharmaceutical drugs, if they don't have a good plan, skyrocketing.
ROMANO: The AMA has already come out against some of the provisions, one in particular against requiring doctors to participate. How--how are you going to deal with that? How are you going to bring in some of these stakeholders, convince doctors that they should participate, they can participate, they should step up?
DUNN: One of the great differences in health care reform this time from the last time--major health care reform was tried 15 years ago--16 years ago--
DUNN: --is that the major stakeholders--the insurance companies, the doctors, the hospitals, the pharmaceutical companies--all feel this same sense of urgency about reforming the system that the President, the Congress, and the American people do. There is no doubt that there is a strong consensus in this country for health care reform.
So, if you start with the idea that people agree on the need to do this, then having a conversation to get to the place where everyone agrees on how to do it becomes that much easier, and the reality is that the doctors--no--the doctors want reform, that at the end of the day, they're not going to get everything they want. We won't get everything we want, but there is a conversation going, and that's how you get to legislation.
ROMANO: Is health care reform going to dominate your portfolio for a bit?
DUNN: Health care reform is a big part of the portfolio, but it's also been a huge part of the President's agenda for building the new foundation for the economy of the future.
He defined four major pillars in his Georgetown University speech. He said that we need health care reform, we need energy independence, we need educational reform, and we need a--regulatory reform, so that our banking system, our financial system, you know, is up to date for the 21st century and we don't have the kind of meltdown that we did last September.
And we are ambitious, and he is ambitious, but he doesn't feel like he got elected to do small things.
DUNN: He feels he got elected because people in this country wanted change, and they wanted these unmet needs to be addressed. As you know--well, you and I have known each other a long time--people in Washington have been talking about these things for decades, okay, while the problems got worse. How many times have we heard people talk about energy reform, health care reform battles that have been fought for decades? Regulatory reform, people watch the problems get worse and worse, didn't do anything. And of course, educational reform, you know, it's kind of like the--you know, kind of like a perennial things that comes around Washington every five years or so where someone says, "Oh, my gosh, we got to make our schools better if we're going to be globally competitive."
This President is going to address those issues because the American people demanded change, and he promised change, and so he is moving forward to build that stronger foundation for our economy because the reality is that, you know, we're nine years into the 21st century, and we lost a lot of time in making the progress we need to make in order to move this country forward. So what are we waiting for? We're going to get started.chapter 2 CLOSE CHAPTER 3
ROMANO: You--during the campaign, you were one of the top four or five advisors to Barack Obama.
ROMANO: He would call you at all hours of the night, and he wanted you to join this White House. Why did you not join it the first time around?
DUNN: Well, during the campaign, I had promised my son Steven [ph.] that when the campaign was over, I would come home. I ended up moving to Chicago and being gone for a big chunk of the year, and I said, "I'll be home in November."
ROMANO: How old is your son?
DUNN: He's 13.
DUNN: So I came home in November, and we were having a very good time, and I was having a good time being home.
So, however, when the President asked me to consider coming in to help at least on a short-term basis back in April--it's a critical time for the country; the challenges are great--it is very difficult when the President of the United States asks you directly to say no.
ROMANO: Now, did he call you personally?
DUNN: We had a conversation.
DUNN: And so I agreed to do this, and, you know, I'm working with an extraordinarily talented group of people. And public service is the noblest form of service that you can have. I've been blessed in my life to be able to work with some of the finest public servants who--who've ever been in Congress. I'm fortunate to be able to serve this President and work with this group of people, but there are other people who are going to get a chance to do this as well.
ROMANO: You've been involved in politics all your adult life--
ROMANO: --and actually even as a teenager, I understand.
ROMANO: How many candidates have you worked for?
DUNN: I have no idea.
ROMANO: That's great. How many Presidential candidates?
DUNN: I've worked for four.
ROMANO: For four.
ROMANO: Okay. So you're very familiar with the system, and there's been a lot of scrutiny on the system lately. When you look back over the years, tell us--tell me what has changed and what you would see as--as a good reform to the system. What would you like to see happen?
DUNN: I think one of the major changes--and it's not a great change--is there is a level of cynicism in the political process now that just wasn't--that wasn't as strong when I came in.
When I--when I started as an intern, people had a fundamental respect for each other and their motivations. You know, the press and politicians understood that at the end of the day they were in adversarial roles, but there was respect. Politicians respected reporters; reporters respected politicians. Everybody respected the American people.
I don't think that's the case now. I think that--that--and I think one of the reasons that Obama in particular excited such strong emotions from people was because he really did move past some of the cynicism and skepticism and the corrosive emotions that politics had become designed to produce in the electorate.
I mean, it is really difficult if you hadn't been doing it to understand why so many--I'd like to say hardened professionals--were so attracted to Obama, because he really did remind us, you know, why we got into this in the first place and about a fundamental, you know, set of values that elected officials and the people who work with them can bring to this process, so...
ROMANO: Is there any room in our process anymore for a long-shot candidate, or do you have to be either extraordinarily well funded or a celebrity as was President Obama, Hillary Clinton, McCain, and even John Edwards?
DUNN: Well, I'd start by saying that Barack Obama was not a celebrity at the beginning of this process, that five years ago at this time--
DUNN: --he had barely won the Democratic nomination for Senate in the State of Illinois and had been a State Senator before that and had lost a congressional race. So I think that "celebrity" probably is not the word that I would have used to describe him at the beginning of the Presidential campaign. In fact--in fact, what was very true about him was that nobody gave him a chance to win. He was not--he was not considered to be particularly well funded. He was not a household name by any stretch of the imagination, and there was a great deal of skepticism about whether an African American Senator in his first term with little, quote, "experience," unquote, could be competitive with that extremely strong field. And I, for one, felt that was one of the strongest fields of candidate that we had--you know, there was nobody there that you wouldn't have felt comfortable winning the nomination. They were all highly qualified, really good people.
But the American people have a way of upending expectations, and the reality is that the most people-oriented, grass-roots campaign that I've ever seen in 30 year--nearly 30 years in American politics was the one that spent the most money, Barack Obama's; that all of the reforms about let's get money out, let's put people back in, that's actually not the way it has worked; that as we have limited money, more money has gone to mass communication, and less money has gone to engaging people in the process; and that what the Obama campaign did very--you know, against the grain was to invest huge amounts of money in engaging people in the process, which in the long run is the reason he won.
So I would say the greatest reform, ironically, came from the candidate who spent the most money, but who at the beginning of the process, if you had said "Barack Obama is going to raise the most money in this," I think people would have taken away your column.
ROMANO: You have resisted the characterization, along with your husband, prominent election law attorney, Bob Bauer--
ROMANO: --of being a Washington power couple. Now, why don't you fit that definition?
DUNN: Because the power at the end of the day is not with people who work for elected officials. The power is with the people--the people who have been given the power by the American people. So, you know, we feel fortunate that we've worked with great public servants, that we've had the opportunity to do this, but we've never fooled ourselves into thinking that we were the reason they got elected, the reason they stayed in office, or that we were the power behind those folks. And the power in this country always rests with the American people who, as 2008 reminded us, have a nice way of reminding official Washington just who's really got the power occasionally when they decide to upend all the conventional wisdom--wisdom and all the expectations and elect somebody named Barack Obama.
CHAPTER 3 END