As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama talked about the issue of health care, but it is unlikely that the average voter understood what he intended to enact if elected. In any case, it would be difficult to argue that his victory last November earned him a clear mandate for the major overhaul of the system he now plans.
The prime-time news conference on July 22 was just the latest effort from the Obama Administration to use the country's broadcast-television networks and other media to reach Americans in their homes and get them on board with the largely Democratic efforts to pass sweeping legislation this year. The talking points, the style and the tone were all familiar, but the result is unlikely to affect either the inside game (the strategic battle with Congress) or the outside game (convincing the American people to jump on board).
Health-care reform is complicated and cosmic, and the questions are monumental and endless. Who pays for it? What gets covered? Who gets covered when? These are merely the biggest questions. Even a great explainer like Obama had trouble making headway on Wednesday night as he delivered his extensive opening remarks and offered unusually long answers to the press. He was oddly free of passion and anger, given how intense the debate has become in the past few days, and he avoided any risk. He will likely have to add these ingredients soon to shake things up and counter flagging public support.
Most striking, perhaps, was Obama's failure to address head-on some of the most difficult issues. Such evasions are a common practice for Presidents, of course, but Obama is usually more straightforward, and prides himself as being too self-aware to engage in the artful dodge as comfortably as some of his predecessors.
What sacrifices will Americans have to make under his proposals? Why hasn't the White House been more transparent about the policymaking process, as then candidate Obama promised? Would he insist that members of Congress face the same limits on choice and access to care as the people getting their insurance from the new public health-care plan he advocates? Those were among the excellent questions hurled at the President, and he countered only with partial responses and vague rhetoric.
If he wants to get some sort of plan through Congress, Obama has no choice but to continue his full-court press of public advocacy for the rest of the summer and into the fall. It is true, as he points out, that much legislative progress almost exclusively managed by his own party already has been made. And he is correct that the current health-care system is both fiscally and morally unsustainable. But his high-profile prime-time performance, with insufficient specificity, scant new data and too many unanswered questions, likely did little to help his cause.