With his approval rating falling below 50 percent for the first time, President Barack Obama finds himself in a politically dangerous position and has called his fourth prime-time press conference for Wednesday to try to turn things around. The bully pulpit is an extremely effective advantage that only the White House commands.
To be successful, Obama must do the following six things:
1. Turn the tide of opposition to the health reform bill
A poll released on July 20 by USA Today and Gallup found that Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of health care, 50 percent to 44 percent. The administration is playing defense on health care, and right now it is losing. Two of the three House committees with jurisdiction over health care have reported their bills out. However, the third, the Energy and Commerce Committee, includes enough moderate Blue Dogs to block the bill’s passage. Obama should remind the public and the media that he has achieved the greatest momentum for health care reform in a generation, and while some are expressing legitimate concerns, both chambers are making good progress.
2. Directly answer Congressional Budget Office criticism that the health care bill adds to the deficit
Last Friday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported that the health care reform bill in the House would not be deficit neutral, adding $239 billion to the deficit over 10 years and undercutting one of Obama’s primary objectives. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius could not directly answer this criticism on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, and Obama must take it head-on. Obama should reiterate that he will not sign health care legislation that is not deficit neutral.
3. Be honest about whether a public option will prevent people from keeping their plan
Obama has repeatedly said that anyone who wants to keep his or her current health insurance plan will be able to. This appears false, because if an employer elects to end the private insurance plan offered to employees to opt for the government plan, then employees cannot keep their current plans as Obama has promised. This is either true or false, and Obama must answer this question directly.
4. Admit unemployment projections were low and explain what is being done to fix the stimulus bill
The White House admits the stimulus bill passed in February has not yet succeeded, as national unemployment has reached a 26-year high of 9.5 percent. White House unemployment estimates were sharply lower than reality, and unemployment is now higher than Obama’s administration said it would be without the stimulus bill. Obama should take responsibility, promise that the government is rushing stimulus spending and highlight the fact that only 7 percent of the money has been spent. Obama should state that the stimulus has not yet taken effect and it cannot be evaluated until it has.
5. Directly address growing concerns about the deficit
The Washington Post-ABC News poll released July 20 showed public approval for Obama’s handling of the deficit at 43 percent, with more independents disapproving (48 percent) than approving (42 percent). Interestingly, the public prefers deficit reduction to increased spending to revive the economy, 55 percent to 40 percent. July 13, the federal deficit reached $1 trillion for the first time in U.S. history, sparking concern about inflation and interest-rate increases. The federal deficit for 2009 is expected to be $1.8 trillion — greater than the past five years combined. Obama should again emphasize his goal of cutting the deficit in half in his first term and remind the public that extraordinary circumstances required significant spending (stimulus, Troubled Asset Relief Program, bailouts).
6. Flip on Guantanamo
Newsweek first reported late Monday that the Obama administration will miss the first deadline facing a task force created to develop a long-term plan for closing the base at Guantanamo. The report, which was due Tuesday, will be delayed six months as the administration addresses this vexing political problem. Public opinion on this issue is strikingly in opposition to Obama’s view. A Gallup Poll conducted May 29-31 found that 65 percent oppose closing Guantanamo and moving “some” of the prisoners to U.S. prisons, while only 32 percent support it. In April, Senate Democrats stripped $80 million from a spending bill for the base closure and overwhelmingly voted to block the transfer of the detainees to U.S. soil. The most responsible and politically salable course of action for Obama is to back off his executive order that would close Gitmo by the end of the year and promise that no foreign terror suspect currently housed there will be brought to U.S. soil.
Matt Mackowiak is the president of Potomac Strategy Group and was press secretary for two Republican senators from 2005 to 2009.