Aug 23, 2009 9 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
If it’s Sunday, it’s time for top aides and allies of President Obama to fan out on the news talk shows. And if it’s Monday, it may very well be time for the White House to walk back everything said on Sunday.
For decades now, presidents have used the political shows to spread their messages at the top of the week, so the administration’s agenda can exert some control over the way news coverage unfolds. However, that basic formula has not been clicking for the vaunted Obama message machine this summer.
The talk-show troubles first surfaced in July, when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. implied on ABC’s “This Week” that the United States would not stand in the way of an Israeli strike on Iran. The next morning, Mr. Obama appeared on CNN to dial back the comments, saying his administration was “absolutely not” giving Israel a green light to attack Iran.
Earlier this month, two of the president’s top economic advisers made the talk-show rounds to calm jitters about the rising deficit. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and chief economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers managed to convey that the president was not ruling out a middle-class tax increase. That evidently was not what the White House had in mind. On Monday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs bluntly fielded reporters’ repeated questions about the tax remarks.
“Let me be precise,” Mr. Gibbs said. “The president’s clear commitment is not to raise taxes on those making less than $250,000 a year.”
Last Sunday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told CNN that a government-run alternative to private health insurance was “not the essential element” of the administration’s health care plan. The president’s liberal Democratic allies perceived her comments as a clear sign that the White House was preparing to concede defeat on a crucial part of his plan.
Not so, Mr. Gibbs said the next day, blaming the confusion on the media. He argued that a taxpayer-funded public health plan was always the president’s preferred option, even though he never considered it to be essential.
To those familiar with how a White House message machine is meant to operate, the Sunday talk-show episodes have become sources of intense curiosity. Were these policy trial balloons by which the White House intentionally floated controversial ideas to gauge reaction? Or were these cases of high-level officials simply saying the wrong thing?
Put at least two former press secretaries in the camp of those who think the talk-show statements were no accident.
Joe Lockhart, who served as a press secretary for President Clinton, said he has no insight into the Obama team’s strategy but would be surprised when members of any administration commit blatant gaffes on Sunday talk shows. The shows, he said, are among the most foolproof venues for delivering a message, with White House press offices taking great care to prepare administration members.
“It’s far from a crapshoot,” Mr. Lockhart said. “It’s pretty rare that you send seasoned professionals out and you’re surprised by what you get. If you’re on a Sunday show, you’re pretty good at this and pretty disciplined.”
Dana Perino, who served as President George W. Bush’s press secretary and is no stranger to the art of Sunday talk, said she sees a pattern in the way the Obama administration has been qualifying and rephrasing statements made on the shows. She said she shares Mr. Lockhart’s view that the president’s team almost certainly devotes considerable attention to selecting TV appearances and preparing its disciplined communicators.
“It’s logical to conclude that they float these trial balloons to see what reaction will be,” Mrs. Perino said. “When Geithner and Summers said that the administration would consider a middle-class tax hike, I said, ‘I give them about 30 hours before the White House disavows what was said.’ ”
In some instances, however, even an appearance by a talk-show veteran can go wrong, said Ed Rollins, a top political adviser in the Reagan White House. He suggested that when Mr. Geithner and Mr. Summers directly contradicted one of Mr. Obama’s central campaign promises, they may have been recalling an idea that had been suggested behind closed doors.
“You just wouldn’t have it in your head if it hadn’t in some way been part of an internal discussion,” Mr. Rollins said. “My sense is, a lot of dialogue and internal discussions occur in this White House that [are not] formulated into policy. That’s the best possible face on it.”
“Either that,” he said, “or they’re just stumbling along.”
Whatever the answer, the White House is not inclined to discuss it.
Deputy press secretary Bill Burton declined a request to explain how administration officials were coached before Sunday talk-show appearances. He said such details “just aren’t that interesting.”
When asked for help in understanding the genesis of the health and human services secretary’s remarks last Sunday, Sebelius spokesman Nicholas Papas responded by e-mailing the clarifying statements that she and the president made Monday.
“All I can tell you is that Sunday must have been a very slow news day, because here’s the bottom line: Absolutely nothing has changed. We continue to support the public option,” the secretary said in a speech Monday.
“She really didn’t misspeak,” Mr. Obama said. “The surprising thing is she’d been saying this all along.”
When asked how Ms. Sebelius prepared for her Sunday talk-show appearance, Mr. Papas said the administration has a policy of not going into detail on such matters.
Whatever her intent, however, the fallout from her remarks on what is “essential” in Mr. Obama’s health plan was unmistakable. Her comments inspired a barrage from liberals – from former Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean to commentator Paul Krugman – who consider a public health insurance component central to any overhaul.
The appearance served as a warning shot to many who have been urging members of Congress to stand firm on the public option, said Karen Finney, a media consultant whose clients include Mr. Dean.
“It got a strong reaction,” Ms. Finney said. “Democrats and activists made it clear that they view the public insurance option as nonnegotiable in a final bill.”
For Mr. Gibbs, the remarks appeared to bring a raft of frustrating fallout. He spent a portion of his Tuesday press briefing arguing semantics with the CNN correspondent and other reporters who were trying to parse the shifts in tone and message that they thought the White House was intending to communicate.
One message the White House probably did not intend to convey was the one Mrs. Perino picked up as she was dissecting the reaction on Monday morning.
“If I were a Cabinet official,” Mrs. Perino said, “I’d think twice before going out on the Sunday shows because on Monday you could get thrown under the bus.”