09.11.09

White House Done With Wilson

The White House hits the road for health care reform, and speaks out—proclaiming the town-hall meetings didn’t matter, branding the Wilson flap as “a pimple on the ass of progress.”

With his big health-care speech behind him, President Obama and his senior aides are mapping his fall strategy. A time-honored White House dilemma looms: Should he spend most of his time rallying the public, or twisting arms and slapping backs on Capitol Hill?

Obama’s senior team has chosen to deploy the president on the road for the moment, but they concede that he will also need to lobby for congressional votes himself from the Oval Office—even if all that really matters is the votes of a handful of up-for-grabs centrists in the Senate. “In terms of his personal time, we have got a lot of events coming up, but it’s obviously going to be a multifaceted deal,” said one senior White House aide. “He and others will be working the congressional side. It is just a handful of votes at this point, but the handful could be important.”

“If you look at the polling, we didn’t lose ground in August,” a senior Obama adviser said. “We lost it in July and June, when Congress was in town.”

Conventional wisdom has it that the president and his team lost August, when cable TV went wall-to-wall with reports on town-hall forums erupting with constituents upset with the president’s plans for health-care reform. But Obama’s team sees it slightly differently. “If you look at the polling, we didn’t lose ground in August,” a senior Obama adviser said. “We lost it in July and June, when Congress was in town.”

Mark McKinnon: Send Joe Wilson HomeThat might seem an academic distinction; after all, the headline about the polls was Obama’s approval ratings went down, significantly. But in this adviser’s view, the town-hall dramas didn’t take the toll everybody think they did; rather, the outbursts were largely politically irrelevant. “I don’t think the protesters hurt us,” the senior adviser said. “We’ve done three town-hall meetings and they were all fine.”

In fact, the White House is more than ready to brush aside the now-infamous protest of Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who yelled at the president during his televised address. “I think this is a pimple on the ass of progress,” said the senior adviser.

Max Blumenthal: Joe Wilson’s Strange Friends Clearly, the White House is feeling confident in the aftermath of last Wednesday’s big speech. And they got some good news in the immediate aftermath. They had seen some slippage among seniors and independents over the summer. But on Thursday, the AARP released a poll that offered some comfort. The poll, conducted immediately after the speech, showed 72 percent of independents over the age of 45 saying that some of their concerns were addressed by the speech, with 63 percent saying they were “more supportive” of his proposals. Those findings were broadly in line with a CNN poll after the speech showing a 14-point rise in support for Obama’s plans among those who watched the address, with 67 percent of all voters backing the president’s plans. Such instapolls don’t necessarily portend a longer-term rise in Obama’s ratings, but they sure beat the alternative.

For now, the Obama team wants the president in the field, working to hold together the base of support for reform. The day after his speech to Congress, he sought and won the support of the American Nurses Association—his second event with the group after first appearing with nurses in the Rose Garden in July. He hits the road for a rally in Minneapolis on Saturday and an interview with 60 Minutes on Sunday with Steve Kroft—who also talked with Obama’s senior team on Election Night last year, and again in March, for a wide-ranging sitdown in the wake of the uproar over the AIG bonuses in March. The campaign continues on Tuesday with a visit to the AFL-CIO’s convention in Pittsburgh.

Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.