The White House lost its voice in healthcare debates during August. Now that Obama is back from vacation, media outlets are reporting a shift in his strategy.
After refusing to take a firm stance regarding particular items in the healthcare reform package, President Obama will soon play a more visible role. According to Politico, the President will specify the elements he wants compromise legislation to contain.
Politico also reports, however, that Obama will remain flexible regarding the public plan. According to Politico, Obama's aides say that a successful confrontation with liberals on the public plan option could gain him points with moderates. The battle would also force the Left to choose between no reform and incremental reform.
During the Clinton administration, people on the left described this type of political trap as nasty, evil, awful, pathetic "triangulation." I wonder how they will describe it now, given that many of them viewed Obama as the antidote to "Clinton politics." My guess: Their analysis will involve use of the word "pragmatic."
What Does This Mean? Possible Political Strategies
I have often wondered whether Obama's snooze period in August was the manifestation of a broader political strategy (rather than bipolar disorder as The Onion satirically reported). There are a few plausible political strategies at play.
Obama could have avoided taking a firm stance earlier in order to avoid the appearance of a bitter defeat if his preferred package did not prevail. Although Obama made specific promises during the presidential campaign, my pet Labrador Retriever has a longer memory than contemporary American voters. Accordingly, he can take new or modified positions during current debates without appearing to betray his campaign promises (at least not to most Americans).
Another possible strategy relates to the first. Obama could have reasonably predicted that the House and Senate would pass wildly different versions of healthcare reform. He could have decided to remain above the fray and return to offer specific guidance only after both versions passed (or were taking shape). Obama could then come across as a conciliator, rather than a divisive partisan.
The only wrinkle in these possible strategy relates to the conservative opposition to and distortion of healthcare reform proposals. Conservatives seized the "debate" (I use the term loosely) over healthcare reform, and their distortions and visibility have eroded some of the President's public support.
Remaining silent during such a gloomy and volatile period is a gutsy move. On the other hand, maybe it was not too risky. Because my pet Labrador Retriever has a longer memory than most voters, a month of agenda-setting by the White House would probably neutralize the recent surge by conservatives. The White House will have the final (i.e., most recent) word in the debate.
Also, never forget that the media outlets view healthcare reform (like most political issues) as a sporting event -- instead of an opportunity for a serious and substantive discourse. So, they will happily fall in line to help construct the White House's "comeback" narrative. I am willing to wager a bet on that one. Whether they were involved from the beginning, I cannot say (and I do not know if I am even that cynical).