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Obama's Misguided Media Blitz

As the president prepares for tonight’s health-care press conference, he’s focusing on the wrong audience, says veteran White House correspondent Sam Donaldson. Why he should step away from the microphones and work the halls of Congress.

07.21.09 10:54 PM ET

The president is focusing on the wrong audience with Wednesday's press conference, says veteran White House correspondent Sam Donaldson. Why he should step away from the microphones and work the halls of Congress.

There is something to the old showbiz rule that you leave ‘em wanting more. But that doesn’t apply when you are selling something.

Since President Obama is trying to sell health-care reform—a huge undertaking, and perhaps a “do or die” proposition for his ability to get things done in the future—it’s hard to fault him for leveraging his bully pulpit and beating the drum at every opportunity, including Wednesday’s prime-time press conference.

But a good salesman knows both what the market will buy and how to ramp up the pressure to close the deal.

Sometimes the one thing worse than herding cats is to wait for the cats to herd themselves.

Ronald Reagan tried to sell aid to the Nicaraguan Contras long after it was apparent that the public didn’t care enough, and Congress wasn’t buying (never mind what was going on in the back room). George W. Bush tried to sell private accounts for Social Security long after his own party leaders told him the market wasn’t there. In both cases, all the exposure, all the salesmanship couldn’t, and didn’t, help. People didn’t want to hear the message and simply tuned it out.

This time, the market is there. The public wants a health-care overhaul, so misjudging the market is not President Obama’s problem. Closing the sale by “putting the screws” to his own party is, and his performance on the second hurdle will go a long way toward determining if he can turn political popularity into meaningful legislation.

In an effort to avoid the Clinton mistake of sending up a piece of “take it or leave it” legislation, the president set out some broad goals and then left it to Congress. But he should have seen what Congress did with the stimulus bill, and taken that as a warning: Sometimes the one thing worse than herding cats is to wait for the cats to herd themselves.

It is one thing to say let’s move forward together and trade ideas back and forth in the early stages of debate—always moving the cats forward—and quite another to wait until different segments announce different approaches as “done deals” and then try to intervene. Rather than selling, you’re haggling. On their turf, no less.

House Democrats want a millionaires’ tax; Senate Democrats aren’t keen for it. The Speaker of the House says the bill must contain a public-insurance option; Senate Democrats don’t like it and don’t have the votes to pass it anyway. A key Senate committee presents a plan that the Congressional Budget Office immediately pronounces far short of what the plan purports to do. And so it goes. And where is the president? Out making speeches about the need for health-care reform and the benefits that it will bring. The case in general has been made, and won. That’s not where the devil is.

Bill Kristol says it’s time for the Republicans to “go for the kill,” so forget any significant help from that quarter. Obama must now bring congressional Democrats together on a piece of legislation that can pass both houses.

If necessary, he should insist on ramming through a bill as long as it truly accomplishes the overall goals, using the reconciliation route in the Senate. That is certainly not the most desirable approach and the fallout could be painful. But putting off a health-care overhaul until 2010, an election year, in order to “study it further” would be far worse for the president. It could, indeed, be Barack Obama’s Waterloo (who knew that Senator Jim DeMint was such a historian?).

Some pundits ponder whether he is “overexposed” when it comes to talking about health-care reform. It’s the wrong question. In truth, he has been “underexposed” when it comes to doing something about it. He must toughen up and herd his Democratic cats behind a set of specifics which he will have to outline, and insist they get the job done now.

No more Mr. Nice Guy. It’s time to sell his vision to the people who can implement it. That’s called leadership.

Sam Donaldson worked at ABC News for over 40 years as a correspondent and anchor.