From Obama, a new strategy for selling healthcare reform

The White House says the president's going to make a "major" speech laying out his goals for any bill

Published September 2, 2009 2:35PM (EDT)

Democratic efforts to pass healthcare reform are floundering, the president's approval rating is dropping, members of Congress are being barraged at their town halls and progressives are pushing the administration to do something, anything, to fight back and try to regain the upper hand. At some point, the White House had to take notice. Now it appears they have, and will make a push to take back the narrative as Congress returns from recess.

President Obama is reportedly considering a major speech next week in which he'd outline his non-negotiables for any reform legislation. That, apparently, would not include the public option, though it wouldn't necessarily be off the table. But Politico reports that "some administration officials welcome a showdown with liberal lawmakers ... The confrontation would allow Obama to show he is willing to stare down his own party to get things done."

Leaving aside the public option for the moment, this does seem like the right strategy for Obama, the one the White House should have gone with from the beginning. The question, though, is whether it's too little, too late. By not proposing his own bill, and letting Congress take full responsibility, the president allowed the debate over reform to become a process story. Media coverage is about the debate within Congress and outside of it, not about the relative merits of various proposals.

That was bound to happen to at least some extent, but the way the White House has handled things so far has exacerbated the problem it faces. They're constantly playing defense now; instead of making a case for the plan to a public ready for changes in the way health insurance operates, they're stuck making a case against the case against the plan.

There's also the problem of Obama's personal popularity. His approval rating has taken a nosedive this summer, going from 59.5 percent in the Real Clear Politics average two months ago to 51.5 percent today. That leaves him with less political capital, and there's less chance he'll be able to get significant momentum towards passage going on his own.

There's one other hurdle the White House will have to overcome: Obama has laid out his policy goals before, and on many occasions, no less. In order to really get a boost from this, he may have to say something truly new, at least phrase it in a new way or offer a new strategy -- sending specifics to Congress for inclusion in final legislation, for instance, might be one way to accomplish that.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Alex Koppelman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Healthcare Reform War Room