Tuesday, August 11, 2009

White House adapts

The White House on Monday started a new Web site to fight questionable but potentially damaging charges that President Obama’s proposed overhaul of the nation’s health care system would inevitably lead to “socialized medicine,” “rationed care” and even forced euthanasia for the elderly.

Right wingers are sowing and ratcheting up fears: euthanasia, Nazis, socialism, death panels, rationed care. Never mind that the claims are lies, distortions and exaggerations: they are playing on fear, adn fear is a great motivator.

But in introducing the Web site, White House officials were tacitly acknowledging a difficult reality: they are suddenly at risk of losing control of the public debate over a signature issue for Mr. Obama and are now playing defense in a way they have not since last year’s campaign.

Acknowledging? Of course. And that is a smart thing. The debate is spinning wildly: a black president, a financial crisis, and comprehensive change are all in a whirlwind. The right wing is stoking fears, and the left wing is insisting on their version of change, undermining the President and attacking Democrats.

Mr. Obama will take the lead this week as he continues a series of public meetings to counter the opposition, events White House officials hope will offer a high-profile opportunity to confront and rebut critics.

As part of the effort, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Steny H. Hoyer, the House majority leader, wrote an opinion article in USA Today on Monday calling conservative protests at Congressional town-hall-style meetings “un-American” for “drowning out opposing views.” (That prompted a swift rebuke from the House minority leader, Representative John A. Boehner, among other Republicans.)

Boehner is in Mongolia on a junket.

“There’s a whole set of rumors that the old playbook would tell you not to do anything about because you draw attention,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House deputy communications director. “The lesson we’ve learned is you ignore these rumors at your peril, and the right answer is to take them head on in as big a way as possible.”

Hit back twice as hard. But they must also concentrate on a visceral response, not a cerebral one. That is why the right wing is being effective: they are playing on fears. Palin used the word evilto describe a health plan proposal that simply doesn't exist, but the word eveil sticks in people's craws.

After getting much of what he wanted on high-risk initiatives like the economic stimulus package and bailouts of banks and auto companies, Mr. Obama had yet to face the full force of conservative opposition to his policies. Some supporters now wonder whether his earlier glide path left him unprepared for the sudden surge of opposition from conservative groups, which have found a rallying point on health care.

They've been doubting him all along.

“The expectation was that things have gotten so bad in the last 16 years that there would be consensus on the need to act this time,” said Howard Paster, who was Mr. Clinton’s chief lobbyist in 1993. “That was a mistake, that assumption.”

That seemed more their assumption than Obama's assumption.

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