What was said during the Obamathon?

What the president said during his Sunday media blitz -- and what they're saying about it

Published September 21, 2009 11:22AM (EDT)

Engaging in an all-out media blitz that will culminate in an appearance on David Letterman tonight, President Obama sat down for interviews on five different networks that were taped Friday but aired Sunday. No other president has ever conducted so many interviews on the Sunday morning news talk shows in the same day.

Did you somehow miss him? Here's the gist of what he said: 

Obama dwelled on similar themes -- healthcare, the economy, race -- in all the interviews and made a somewhat surprising admission, saying that the healthcare debate had "humbled" him. He conceded that he has had problems "breaking through" and expressing to Americans why healthcare reform is so vital to the country. "I think there have been times where I have said I've got to step up my game in terms of talking to the American people about issues like health care," Obama said on George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week." The president added, however, that he will push forward with healthcare reform, “Because I — I really think it’s the right thing to do for the country.”

He dismissed the notion that mandating that all Americans have health insurance would increase taxes, and sounded almost Reaganesque in doing so, stating in the ABC interviews, "What I’ve said is that if you can’t afford health insurance, you certainly shouldn’t be punished for that ... For us to say that you’ve got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase. What it’s saying is that we’re not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you anymore.”

Throughout all the interviews, Obama maintained a cool demeanor. While on CBS' "Face the Nation," host Bob Schieffer asked Obama about whether his healthcare reform ideas were too ambitious. Obama replied, "I don't think I've promised too much at all ... Everyone recognizes this is a problem. Everyone recognizes the current path we're on is unsustainable ...We know that standing still is not an option."

And Obama insisted on Univision that he has not given up on the public option that many progressives believe is essential to reform because it would challenge private insurers to lower their costs to compete with a government-backed insurance option. "I absolutely do not believe that [the public option is] dead," Obama said on Univision, a Spanish-language channel. "I think that it's something that we can still include as part of a comprehensive reform effort."

When questioned about the economy, Obama painted a grim picture,  telling CNN's John King that "The jobs picture is not going to improve considerably, and it could even get a little bit worse, over the next couple of months ... And we're probably not going to start seeing enough job creation to deal with the rising population until some time next year."

He cleverly sidestepped discussions of race, in part, by blaming the media.  On NBC's "Meet the Press," Obama told host David Gregory that racial issues are "catnip" to the media. The president distanced himself from the recent claims by former President Jimmy Carter and others that the majority of the opposition to his presidency stems from racism. Instead, Obama blamed the media for fanning the flames of racial tension in the U.S.

“The media loves to have a conversation about race,” Obama said on NBC. “This is catnip to the media because it is a running thread in American history that’s very powerful. And it invokes some very strong emotions.” As The Plum Line's Greg Sargent pointed out, Obama made these comments after Gregory attempted to get the president to condemn Carter's recent statements.

In his ABC interview, Obama sought to formulate a nuanced position on the race issue. He in no way embraced the idea that racism is driving opposition to his presidency. Stephanopoulos asked him, "Does it frustrate you when your own supporters see racism when you don’t think it exists." To which, Obama replied:

Look I think that race is such a volatile issue in this society, always has been that, uh, it becomes hard for people to separate out race being a sort of part of the backdrop of American society versus race being a predominant factor in any given debate ... The overwhelming part of the American population, I think, is right now following this debate and they are trying to figure out, is this gonna help me. Is health care going to make me better off? Now there are some who are, setting aside the issue of race, actually I think are more passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right. And I think that that’s probably the biggest driver of some of the vitriol.

What are others saying about the Obama-thon?

Obama appeared on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Univision. But he did not go on Fox News. Writing in the New York Times, TV critic Alessandra Stanley wrote that this apparent snub made Obama appear petty and that it was a tit-for-tat response to Fox's decision not to broadcast Obama's speech on healthcare before a joint session of Congress on September 9. "That omission was not as tactical as it was telling: a rare sign of frustration, and payback, by a White House that prides itself on diplomacy and an even keel," wrote Stanley. "Mr. Obama sought on Sunday to bring a little order and civility to a debate that grows ever more heated and shrill. But by boycotting, the White House seemed to be getting caught up in the kind of hostilities that increasingly divide Fox News Channel from its rivals."

Fox's Chris Wallace made sure that the station's audience heard all about Obama's decision not to give an interview on the network. “The White House made it clear they had no interest in talking to us,” said Wallace, who is the host of “Fox News Sunday." “Whatever happened to reaching out to all Americans?” Wallace said, adding, "[The White House aides] are the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington."

For their part, the Obama administration fired back. According to Stanley, a White House deputy press secretary laid into Fox, telling ABC, “We figured Fox would rather show ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ than broadcast an honest discussion about health insurance reform ... Fox is an ideological outlet where the president has been interviewed before and will likely be interviewed again; not that the whining particularly strengthens their case for participation any time soon.

The Republican response to Obama was predictable. Republicans repeatedly alleged that the president was overexposed and asserted that Americans had rejected his healthcare reform ideas. “The president is selling something that people quite frankly aren’t buying,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. said. “He’s been on everything but the Food Channel.” Republican consultant Alex Castellanos reiterated this meme. "Actually, he has broken through. People don't like what he is selling ... This is not a communications problem," Castellanos said. Following Obama on CBS, Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee chairman, called the interviews ineffectual. "The president said a lot without saying anything," Steele said. "There was nothing that moved the needle on this debate."

But Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan probably wins the award for the most affected reaction to Obama's media deluge. While on a Sunday talk show herself, ABC's "This Week," she asserted that "The media environment allows a modern leader to be something subtly damaging, and that is boorish. They get their face in your face every day all the time. It's boorish and it makes people not lean toward you but lean away from you, no matter what the merits of the issue."

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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