It's the messaging, stupid

Robert Gibbs speaks to the messaging approach of the White House

Published August 11, 2009 6:02PM (EDT)

Aboard Air Force One en route to the New Hampshire town hall currently under way, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs conducted a quick press gaggle. At one point he fielded several questions about the Obama administration's messaging on healthcare.

In my opinion, the problem with the administration's messaging -- and we're seeing it right now in New Hampshire -- is that it's too problem-oriented. That is, they are strong on explaining the problems of the current healthcare system and complaining about the healthcare industry, but there's less detail and simple explanation about how the reform actually works to solve or eliminate these problems.

In any case, here are relevant portions of that transcript, followed by a video from an interview Gibbs did earlier today on the ground in Washington:

Q: On what we're going to get here in a little bit in New Hampshire, what are you expecting in terms of congressmen being burned in effigy, that kind of thing?

MR. GIBBS: Look, I've been to several hundred of these with Barack Obama. I doubt that I've ever been to one where everyone agreed with everything he said. I think he's always believed and I think the New England tradition is that you have an exchange of ideas and hopefully all sides become better informed about the issues that are affecting them. I think that's what the President has always looked at a town hall meeting to do. I don't expect anything to be markedly different in that sense today.

Q:  What about his message? Is it going to be different -- is he tweaking it or --

MR. GIBBS: No, we'll talk about what we've talked about for a while. We'll talk about the importance of health insurance reform. The introducer today, which I think you guys have information on, is somebody who's been denied coverage because of a preexisting condition. Twelve-and-a-half million Americans over the past three years have been denied coverage because of a preexisting condition. And I think most people recognize that it's time for that to change. That kind of discrimination has to stop and it's something the President will focus on in large measure today.

Q: Robert, is it safe to say that the level of opposition, especially conservative opposition that has hardened to the health care reform, that took the administration by surprise?

MR. GIBBS: Based on?

Q: Based on polls showing diminishing public support and also -- among the conservative -- the level of conservative animosity towards the reform. Has that taken the -- did that take the administration by surprise? Is that --

MR. GIBBS: That conservatives oppose health care reform is about as surprising as the sun having come up today in the east.

Q: I mean the sort of virulence of it, the --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't -- just because somebody can yell at a health care town hall meeting I think is indicative only of one's personal lung capacity.

Q: Is there any danger of diluting the message? There are so many different facets to this. You're talking today, as you said, about preexisting conditions. Also you've talked about -- the President has talked about health care in the context of economic reform. Going from sub-message to sub-message to sub-message, is there a danger that none of them are sticking?

MR. GIBBS: No, I -- look, I think if you're sitting at home, you're concerned that your health care bill is going up because it's gone up every year. It's doubled in the past nine years. We're in the midst of a tremendous economic downturn, which makes paying for the increasing cost of health care even harder. And if you lose your job or your employer has to cut your health care and you find yourself on a private market, as millions of people do every day, you might get discriminated against because somebody in an insurance company decides you have a preexisting condition.

I don't think that's confusing; I think that's the way millions of Americans live every day. I think that's what people are focused on in this debate. I don't think that people are -- no offense, but you guys cover a lot of process and you cover a lot of -- you cover noise and heat and light, but I think what people in America want to know is how is this reform going to help them or how is it going to affect them. I think that's what the President wants to do today, is discuss those particulars with the American people. I think that's what they're concerned about.

Q Can you have light without heat?

MR. GIBBS: Absolutely.

Q I guess my point being, as you said, people want to know how this is going to help them, but each time the President goes out that message is substantially different to some people, who listen sort of occasionally.

MR. GIBBS: I don't think the message is -- maybe I just -- maybe I missed it. I don't think the message is substantially different. I don't -- we've been talking about health care the same way for almost two-and-a-half years. We've been talking about the fact that it's not just about increasing coverage, it's cutting costs. It's about making sure that insurance works for people. I don't think we've changed messages at all.


Q: Do you think the President is winning the message war? And if you feel like he is winning that war, how do you know?

MR. GIBBS: Look, I think we are continually trying to let people know what this means to them. There's a lot of noise. I think about -- take, for instance, the whole debate about supposed euthanasia. Did you see the interview that the Washington Post's Ezra Klein did with Republican U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson? Look, this is somebody who helped to author on the Senate side a similar provision as is in the House side.

Is there a constant struggle because you guys would rather cover Sarah Palin saying something that Johnny Isakson says is nuts? Sure, there's always a struggle in that. But for 40 years this has been tough going because there are a group of people -- we hear them, we seem them now -- that are for the same status quo; they're for the special interests that are making billions and billions and trillions of dollars on a system that works well for them, but not for millions and millions of Americans -- they want to keep that.

Our challenge each and every day is to go out and make sure people understand that doing nothing costs the American people more in health care -- more in health care spending; it makes our budgetary problems worse; it causes people to lose their coverage and lose their doctor. And we can change all that.

In his television interivew with NBC's Matt Lauer, Gibbs explained why the White House was sending the president out for a live town hall. Gibbs mentions many of the points he later reiterates on Air Force One. And he addressed the subject of the protesters. 

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By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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