By Ken Feltman
“You can observe a lot just by watching.”
– Yogi Berra
We end 2009 where we began. Then, the Democratic leadership was trying to jam through an economic stimulus bill. Now, the Democratic leadership is trying to jam through a healthcare reform bill. Then, they spoke in apocalyptic terms, convinced that instant action was required to save the United States, indeed the world. Now, they just want to give President Obama a chance to sign a healthcare bill before his State of the Union address early next year.
At Radnor, we have been watching a developing pattern in voter opinion: Independent and moderate voters are coming to the belief that Obama is too analytical, too uninvolved, too occupied with his own personal agenda to understand their problems. In other words, he does not feel their pain. Because public opinion polls are ubiquitous and it is easier to write about jeopardized Democratic majorities in Congress and President Obama’s sinking approval rating, the larger shift is not discussed: The president is losing the confidence of the voters in the middle. Those are the voters who put him in the White House.
Congressional Democrats: Canaries in the mine
When that has happened to other presidents, their legislative goals have stalled. When a president with a stalled agenda has attempted to jump-start his program, voters have vented their frustration first on members of his party in Congress, then on the president himself. Will that happen? If so, history suggests that Congressional Democrats will suffer first.
Democratic leaders seem oblivious to the toxic nature of their healthcare reform approach and the deep dissatisfaction with the stimulus program. They dismiss the bitter antipathy toward some Obama appointees. Instead, White House speechwriters have drafted and tested a few variations of words the president might use to proclaim victory on healthcare and move on. That’s all they want. Just get the bill to his desk. They believe that he needs a victory, any victory. But this is a victory that he does not need. Nor do other Democrats: Increasingly, the public thinks healthcare reform has been bungled and any bill will cause more harm than good.
Combined with the public’s frustration with the ineffectiveness of the economic recovery outside lower Manhattan, deepening unemployment, Wall Street’s coziness with key administration officials and a growing sense that the president is over his head, Democratic and left-leaning voters are surprisingly negative in their assessment of Obama and Democratic Party leaders. Victory on healthcare, if it comes, will carry a big price tag. When I wrote the first of my healthcare articles last February, President Obama’s favorable rating averaged nearly 70 percent in several respected polls. Today, his popularity is under 50 percent in those same polls. The ratings of Congressional leaders have suffered worse declines.
The Obama team misjudged healthcare. While the White House was working in February on a big and quick fix for the economy, one of the highest ranking White House officials told me that the administration wanted to get the economy “out of the way.” He said that a switch to healthcare reform would put Obama on “our ground, very friendly ground” where “the vast number of Americans are on our side.”
Today, the ground is less sure and the White House knows that a majority of Americans now disagree with the president’s solutions in reforming our healthcare system. Still, the House and Senate plug ahead, unable to stop now that they have started. Legislation this big is like the python devouring its prey: Once the snake starts swallowing, it cannot stop, even if it has chosen too large a meal. The python will die trying to get the prey into its gut.
Not only that, the economy is not “out of the way” and despite all of the Obama administration’s attempts to blame former President Bush, the American people now believe that Obama is responsible for the continuing economic and jobs crises. That shift to holding Obama responsible even as Obama and his spokespersons continue to blame Bush is symbolic of the dissonance between public opinion and White House statements. The public is moving ahead and is beginning to wonder why the administration lags behind. A woman in Virginia who voted for Obama said at a Radnor focus group: “Obama can’t seriously think that he can still blame everything on Bush, can he?”
That woman is one of many self-identified Democrats and Obama voters who expressed their concerns during focus groups, often in surprisingly negative words. Republicans and voters who did not support Obama in 2008 were reticent to join in the criticism. Although they like the president, the voters are unhappy with what he has accomplished and with his priorities.
Now comes the delayed decision on what to do in Afghanistan. Increasingly, voters are telling researchers that, whatever his final decision, Obama looks weak and indecisive. Is it too late to change that impression?
Yes, it is. To millions of voters, Obama does not look deliberative. He looks indecisive. Others sense it and take advantage. Rolled by Chinese handlers who blocked his press conference from reaching his intended audience – the Chinese people – Obama left China and soon bowed to the emperor of Japan. Normally that would be an innocuous act, but it takes on more significance when people are concerned that their president might be awed by royalty or – more ominous – uninformed about how other U.S. presidents have behaved in previous similar situations.
Uneasy in the middle
A man in New Jersey who supported Obama asked a question at a Radnor focus group: “Does Obama thinks he’s the first man to be president? There’s history here, how other presidents handled the bow or not. I worry that he’s too self-centered, he thinks it begins with him.” A woman in Illinois who campaigned for Obama commented that “President Obama seems to be casting himself in the role of President Obama in a movie he’s directing. It’s all about Obama.”
Other things make people uneasy. Confessed terrorists will get the visibility of a trial in New York because the president’s choice for attorney general made a decision that many Democrats agree with – but that most swing voters seem to find inexplicable. The decision gives the right-leaning bloggers and talking heads the chance to sound off. Obama, they think, provokes controversy. He seems to have a knack for finding a way to rile up the opposition and trouble the voters in the middle. “My girlfriend’s father died on 9-11. She doesn’t want to have it dragged out again. Why are they doing it? I’m surprised they aren’t more sensitive,” said a young Obama supporter in New Jersey.
A year ago, key Obama officials wanted to get the economy behind to get to the friendlier ground of healthcare reform. Now, the White House wants to get healthcare passed, signed and out of the way so the president can concentrate on the economy going into the 2010 elections. Sabotaging that effort is the release of a government report on new mammogram guidelines. The initial reaction by advisors close to the president was to ignore the controversy. They complained about the timing of the release of the report. Then, they analyzed the overnight research and decided to combat adverse publicity by being dispassionate and factual in their statements about the guidelines.
Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters
Nothing about cancer is dispassionate. Nothing about our mothers, our wives, our sisters and our daughters is dispassionate. This is an administration that is so rational that it actually sent spokespersons before television cameras to quote figures showing that earlier testing is not economically justified. Rationalize that to your sister. Tell her that a White House spokeswomen went on network television and used charts to show that earlier mammograms save too few lives to be justified economically.
Too late, the spokeswoman seemed to comprehend the ruthlessness of her cost-benefit analysis. She tried to put some compassion back into the figures by noting that, for women who die without testing, this could be a preventable personal and family tragedy. But it is too late. The sad little secret is out. “Last year, I didn’t see his smugness,” said a Texas Democrat. “This whole White House is full of very rational people, damned rational people,” said a loyal Democratic voter in Virginia.
President Obama’s speeches from three to seven months ago, in which he talked about eliminating medical expenses that are not cost effective and, therefore, cannot be justified in healthcare reform, suddenly butted up against the House and Senate versions of reform: Both call for cuts in spending for aging Americans, who so far have accepted their prospect of diminished healthcare resources under the assumption that as they reach the end of their lives, at least they are sacrificing so that their children and grandchildren have better care.
Now they see that their daughters and granddaughters will have less, too. “We’ll all have less,” said a New Jersey grandmother who supported Obama. Rationally, the administration points out that even though senior lose Medicare funding, our youngest taxpayers lose more by being saddled with higher than actuarially justified taxes in healthcare reform. Rationalize that to your grandmother.
The emperor has no emotion
Wait a minute. If nothing has forced Americans to confront rationing of care and its ramifications until now, this will. Managed care and gatekeepers have not forced enough people to deal with bloodless decision-makers. Breast cancer will.
The American people will understand that the same rational analysis that went into the new mammogram testing recommendations will go into other, perhaps all, aspects of Obamacare. This rational, completely logical style of decision-making is the way the president seems to go about all things: Dispassionately, unemotionally, and some fear, uninvolved. The fact that the reallocation of resources is even-handed will bring little comfort. “This president does not relate on my level,” said a life-long Democrat in Illinois.
Administration supporters have taken to repeating the mantra that “other countries do it” to justify rationing and curtailment of medical research. Public opinion studies suggests that Americans are unconvinced. Congressional leaders and the President have the benefit of research advising them on the best words to use to “position” healthcare reform in the most positive way. Still, voters are unconvinced. Claims that various bills will not add to the deficit are dismissed by wary voters who have heard that line before.
Obama owns healthcare. He has staked a great deal on it. Today, if a woman dies of breast cancer, we can believe that everything possible was done. Tomorrow, we will have an anxious, nagging uncertainty: Was a life jeopardized because of a bureaucrat’s decision?
Will the women of America receive what will seem like an unreasonable allocation of resources? Will most people see withholding tests and treatment not as even-handed justice but as even-handed injustice? Whatever happens, it is probable that more than a few people will blame the man who hopes to take credit for healthcare reform. “He wants to be above the fray, but if he wants the credit, Obama also must get the blame,” said a California Democrat.
Another wartime president
Into this atmosphere comes a president who has spent most of the year on healthcare while average Americans have spent more and more time worrying about the economy and jobs. He has been slow to decide what to do in Afghanistan. More and more voters express concern. Obama’s foreign ventures have yielded adulation but little more.
A mother in Texas commented that “my kids and I see Obama as a positive role model. We love him. Finally, one of our own. But we can’t eat the Nobel Prize.” Another mother, from California, said that she likes Obama’s “liberal governing” but worries that he is “more the president of the world than the president here at home.”
Voters seem willing to consider that, just possibly, Obama is over his head. Will this change if he gets to sign a healthcare bill? His key advisors think so. They believe that he will get a boost in the polls.
They ignore the most important fact: Today is the day that Obama becomes a wartime president. With his delayed announcement of a decision on Afghanistan, the president will be spending more time on military entanglements. Presidents cannot always choose the issues.
Obama chose healthcare but did not understand that tackling a huge issue like healthcare is like a python gobbling a meal: Once the snake starts to swallow its prey, there’s no turning back. If the prey is too large, the python will die trying to get it down his throat. Obama did not choose the economy and tried to get rid of it quickly. He blamed Bush. But as the economy failed to improve for average Americans, Obama came to own the economy. Now he will own the war.
For presidents, issues are like flypaper: Touch it and you’re stuck.
The White House believes that the president will start moving up in the polls once the contentious decisions on the economy, healthcare and Afghanistan are behind. Some White House staff members suggest that the people voicing negative opinions could be Republicans masquerading as disaffected Democrats. They point out that the comments are “too right-wing” to have come from Obama supporters.
Being president is not all Air Force One, foreign visits and state dinners. It is not all about picking the issues. The American president is the most personal leader of all the government leaders in the world. Voters want the president to show a little passion. Perhaps that is Obama’s problem: Careful but time-consuming analysis of options, regardless of the correctness of the ultimate decision, is damaging to a president’s standing with the voters.
Obama’s style, so admired as reserved and cool on the campaign trail, is not wearing well in the White House.
A woman in Virginia who voted for Obama commented that “he needs a blood transfusion. He’s a few quarts low.”