Sunday, October 10, 2010

Where Obama Messed Up

President Obama had a choice in late January. Scott Brown had just defeated Martha Coakley to win a Senate seat from Massachusetts. It was clear to those who helped with the campaign that the overriding issue was healthcare. At the time, separate versions of healthcare reform had passed the House and Senate, and a soon to be convened conference committee would rectify the two versions into one. The Brown victory put that process in jeopardy. Brown became the crucial 41st Republican vote in the Senate; the Republicans could filibuster any action on the Senate floor and as long as they remained united, there was nothing the Democrats could do.

I support the President, and I supported healthcare reform (even though it didn't include a public option), and I voted for Martha Coakley. But the decision the President made in the days following Scott Brown's victory created the current political environment, where the President's party is poised to lose majorities in the House and potentially the Senate.

So what was President Obama's choice? He could have pulled a "Bill Clinton." In the days following the Brown victory, he could have declared the healthcare bill dead. He could have said he heard the will of the voters, and would instead focus all the energy within his administration's domestic policy agenda on creating jobs and making the economy better.

Even today, the economy kind of freaks people out. The recession officially ended in June 2009, but even since then, people have been skittish about the recovery. That's what voters cared about in January, and it's what they care about now.

The President instead decided the time was then to pass healthcare, even with Scott Brown a U.S. Senator. It was a bold move. The American people were confused by the healthcare bill. People I know who spoke to a lot of voters ahead of the Brown/Coakley vote concur that even in Massachusetts, voters didn't want the bill to become law and wanted Brown to win to stop that from happening.

In January, the President had already lost the messaging war regarding the bill, and he had lost it badly. The electorate thought the bill was a huge government takeover of healthcare, a government intrusion into personal decisions about health, and a costly, risky bureaucratic mess that was irresponsible given the shaky nature of the economy. None of this was true, but it didn't matter. The fact a large percentage of the electorate believed those reasons was enough. [Side note: How the President lost the messaging war in the months leading up to the Brown election would make for an excellent PR thesis topic.]

President Obama was able to get the healthcare bill passed, despite the Scott Brown victory. In the process, he angered quite a few voters, including those who previously weren't upset at him, simply because he ignored the mandate of the Brown victory; he didn't accept the Senate victory as a reason to stop the push on healthcare reform. For that reason, anything the President has done over the past eight months has been interpreted through that mindset. Everything he has done to help create jobs has been overshadowed by his insistence on healthcare reform.

The unfortunate part of the entire situation is the President has done quite a bit to help the economy. Efforts that Republicans have spun as bad have worked. But those programs are lost in the rhetoric.

If I were to give the President some advice, I would tell him one thing he probably already knows. That being that his decision on healthcare (while I applaud) has created the current volatile political environment and threatens the Democratic majorities.

I would then tell him one thing he probably doesn't know, and that's to simplify and focus his message. The American people are scared to death about the economy. That came through in January with the Scott Brown victory. For that reason, starting right now, the administration should not tout any of its previous accomplishments. It should focus on what it's going to do to help the economy. Every day and every minute. Nothing else matters.

1 comment:

Marston said...


Great commentary. We agree on more than probably either of us care to admit. :-)