Seriously. What were they thinking?
The health care “town hall” event at the White House staged by ABCNews was clearly intended as part of Pres. Obama’s week-long PR blitz to bolster the case for health care reform, to be followed today with rallies funded and organized by the Usual Suspects.
ABCNews denied that it was actively assisting this effort, despite running graphics in a font remarkably similar to the Gotham font Obama used throughout the 2008 campaign. But despite the presence of a couple of challenging questioners, the pre-selected questions and general lack of follow-up made for an experience similar to the lame press conference format lefty bloggers like Ezra Klein were decrying yesterday morning, but probably enjoying in primetime. (Even ABC’s online fact-checking was lame, verging on the left-leaning. In contrast, Cato managed to savage Obama’s talking points in real time.)
The upside for Obama in this format is that he was generally able to bob and weave away from the real issues. For example, he talked about increasing the number of primary care doctors without acknowledging this could inflate the health care costs he claims he is trying to contain.
He could deliver his standard talking points about preventative care, even the vast majority of preventative measures reviewed in the health economics literature do not save money.
He could simply assert that “often times we know what makes sense and what doesn’t,” in pushing comparative effectiveness research, despite the fact that it is already killing cancer patients in Britain, to name but one example. (Indeed, no one followed up on his semi-oblique suggestion that America generally needs to move to a culture that disfavors heroic end-of-life care.)
Obama could talk about a proposed government-run plan without addressing the arguments that such a plan would almost inevitably engage in unfair competition. Obama was not asked whether a public plan would be allowed to fail. He was not asked about the Senate bill that would allow a public plan to avoid state regulation. He was not asked about the Lewin Group estimate that as many as 119 million people could be dumped from their current coverage into to the public plan until the Nightline segment, which was likely watched by far fewer people. Obama should doubly thank ABCNews for burying that exchange because — despite the fact that he had to know it was probably coming — it was Aetna CEO Ron Williams, not the Orator-in-Chief, who had the soundbite: “It’s difficult to compete against a player who’s also the person refereeing the game.” (At that link, Jake Tapper also notes that the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that support for a public plan plummets to 37 percent if it would crowd out private insurers. But I digress.)
He got to complain about the Congressional Budget Office’s stubborn refusal to score his imaginary game-changers as actual savings, while refusing to commit to any method of paying for a plan that Obama admitted might cost as much as $2 trillion. As CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller noted again and again and again, throughout the primetime special — and the Nightline addendum — Obama would pretend he was going to address a “challenging question,” or would say that an issue required a “difficult decision,” while avoiding an answer.
But what did Obama really get for all of his dodging? He didn’t take many punches, but he didn’t land any, either. Drew Weston might say that it is smart to avoid wonkery and focus on his three basic principles (however dishonest they may be) — lower costs, freedom to choose and coverage for all Americans. But even if the audience will not remember the details, they will remember (even if subconsciously) whether there were details. Platitudes alone will not address the public skepticism of about the types of fixes being proposed by Obama and the Democrats.
Weston also believes in the power of stories over policy (and there is some merit to that argument). On that front, Obama got to talks about his late grandmother again. But he was also exposed as a rank hypocrite on the issue of seeking extraordinary care for his own family before making it clear that he thinks other people’s families should hurry up and die already:
Jane Sturm told the story of her nearly 100-year-old mother, who was originally denied a pacemaker because of her age. She eventually got one, but only after seeking out another doctor.
“Outside the medical criteria,” Sturm asked, “is there a consideration that can be given for a certain spirit … and quality of life?”
“I don’t think that we can make judgments based on peoples’ spirit,” Obama said.
Obama came off sounding more like one of the evil insurance company execs he wants to drive out of business than the sort of empathetic person he wants to appoint to the federal judiciary.
Pres. Obama’s approach of leaving all of those “difficult decisions” to Congress and refusing to commit to any specifics that might turn out to be unpopular places him in the role of professor, not president. It’s hard to be a leader with no direction. It’s hard to sell a plan when you don’t have a plan. It’s hard to be given hours of ABCNews time and not make any news, but Obama seems to have managed it. ABCNews gave Obama a gift, and he squandered it. The town hall was billed as a “Prescription for America,” but viewers were left with little idea as to what might end up in the bottle.
As Obamacare started running into trouble in Congress, some on the Left — like Stanley Greenberg and Nate Silver — started begging Pres. Obama to get out and sell, sell, sell a government takeover. Ezra Klein argued that Obama should have sat back and waited until Congress pushed as far as it could. Yesterday’s installment of O!TV seems to have accomplished the worst of both worlds, burning some political capital to no concrete purpose.