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Fatal Conceit By: Gary Andres
Weekly Standard | Friday, July 31, 2009


Legislative proposals don't suffer massive heart attacks, but health care reform experienced some serious chest pains over the past couple of weeks. Part of the diagnosis for President Obama's signature policy initiative is straightforward: the transition from feel-good slogans to specific plans always increases public controversy.

But a less obvious explanation also contributes to the measure's sagging support: President Obama himself. His constant drumbeat that failure to act now will produce catastrophic results is more indicative of presidential hubris than sound legislative strategy.

The White House believes its "all in" approach of high-visibility speeches, media appearances, and town hall meetings is the way to win. In reality it's contributing to health care's dropping popularity.

The Kaiser Foundation confirmed the big chill several days ago: "But with health reform moving from the abstract to concrete legislative proposals, criticisms made during the policy debate appear to be having an impact on the public and several indicators have softened somewhat from earlier this year," Kaiser wrote. Their tracking surveys showed an increased share of the public worried that a bill will be bad for their family. And, the percentages saying health care reform will "make things worse for their own family" or that the country would be "worse off" if the legislation passed, although relatively small, have also doubled since February.

Other national polls--such as Gallup and Rasmussen--show similar shifts in opinion. But Obama exacerbates these problems by creating a needless tone of crisis and urgency around the timetable for legislative action. Meeting deadlines like passage by the August recess shows "momentum," they argue. But that's an inside-the-Beltway mentality and no one outside Washington understands it. In reality, it does the opposite--throwing gas on smoldering skepticism.

"Is something fishy going on here?" many voters ask. Why the big rush? What's the difference between doing something now or later this year? Especially since many of the provisions in the bills don't even kick in for three years! Is the president trying to pull the wool over our eyes?

This is the heart of the White House's tactical blunder. They failed to recognize a critical trade-off. Any time the president tries to mobilize public opinion, a few negative effects emerge, dampening enthusiasm for what he's trying to sell.

Political scientist George C. Edwards III identified the risks of "going public" in his book On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit. He concludes highly-visible public campaigns are usually counterproductive. "Presidents not only fail to create new political capital by going public, but their efforts at persuading the public may also decrease their chances of success in bringing about changes in public policy."

Why? Although Democratic partisans may urge Obama to keep up his high decibel communications effort imploring congressional action, most people despise watching the sausage making process. And the president's extremely public sales pitch is forcing many to view it--like it or not. Polls show Americans consistently underestimate the amount of consensus in politics and policymaking. Witnessing high levels of Washington conflict turns them off.

This is one of the central findings of John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse's book Stealth Democracy: Americans' Beliefs About How Government Should Work. "Our results suggest that it is exposure to the work of legislation that erodes public confidence," they write. "As long as people know the process could be viewed if they wanted to view it, there is no need to thrust it upon them."

Thrust upon them indeed. Obama's permanent campaign approach to health care is shoving it down their throats. And many Americans are responding with predictably negative reactions.

Obama and his advisers suffer from a fatal conceit. They believe the power of his personality, the popularity of his brand, or the strength of his rhetoric, can out-muscle public opinion and separation of powers. This miscalculation has not yet killed health care reform, but certainly has slowed things down.

His macho "don't bet against me" rhetoric upon returning from foreign travels began the unraveling. It actually sent another subtler message: "A big fight is about to start in Washington." That kind of talk--while popular with chest-thumping partisans--sets most Americans on edge.

In contrast, the less visible efforts of Senate Finance Committee members led by Democrat Max Baucus and Republican Charles Grassley may produce more popular and sustainable legislative results.

The White House's fatal conceit may not doom health care reform. But it may take the Senate's, old-fashion, less public medicine to resuscitate the patient.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.


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