ABC News reports that Barack Obama has returned to Washington, only to step off the plane and “into his next domestic crisis.” He “planned to leave the details of health-care reform to Congress, but today the White House says he’ll play a much stronger role.” The Associated Press says Obama is “backing away” from his “‘it’s-all-on-the-table’ approach” and is “prepared to get louder and more involved in the details of a health care overhaul.” “This weekend,” NBC Nightly News explained in its lead story, “the president signaled an aggressive stance to put his personal stamp on the sweeping legislation.”
There’s only one problem. These stories were all reported nearly three months ago upon Obama’s return from his largely failed European mission. And yet, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Obama’s planned address to a joint session of Congress next week “will insert the president into the heated debate in a way he has avoided all summer.” The Washington Post informed readers that the “White House is scrambling to take control of the health-care debate after watching from the sidelines.” A “senior aide” to Obama says the president will be “much more prescriptive.”
Why the White House press corps didn’t just change the date on their old copy and run it again is beyond me. And I’ll leave it to others to ponder the media’s seemingly infinite capacity to give Obama as many do-overs as he might need.
Why the Obama administration is determined to do the time warp again is easier to decipher. Obama’s advisers think the answer to every problem is more cowbell, if by “cowbell” you mean “Obama.” It’s like Obama guru David Axelrod is the Christopher Walken character from the Saturday Night Live
skit about Blue Oyster Cult (if you don’t know the reference, Google “cowbell”).
Every time someone comes up with an alternative to throwing Obama on TV, Axelrod says, “No, no, no. Guess what? I got a fever, and the only prescription . . . is more Obama!”
But is that really what the doctor ordered?
Obama’s address next week will be his third prime-time appeal in three months and the fifth in his seven-month-old presidency. The networks are chagrined about this, not least because the ratings half-life of these events is severe. (Fox’s broadcast network beat out the other networks by running So You Think You Can Dance instead of his last prime-time press conference.) More relevant, they haven’t done Obama much good.
His July 22 press conference was billed as perhaps Obama’s last chance to save health-care reform. It tanked (partly because Obama’s attack on the Cambridge police dominated the press). Afterward, public support for Obamacare dropped significantly. A Pew poll taken that week found that more people opposed the proposals being considered by Congress than supported them, and that Obama’s overall approval had dropped 7 points from the previous month. Other polls showed similar declines.
Now, more than a month later, things look even worse. The obvious solution? Even more cowbell.
But what is lacking is not cowbell, it’s substance the American people can support. Obama will reportedly be “more specific,” but he won’t commit himself to any particular piece of legislation. This suggests that the White House still thinks it has a communication problem, and if only it dispels the cloud of “lies” belched up by the opposition, there will be nothing but blue skies ahead.
Funny how the people who run the most sophisticated communication operation in the history of the presidency keep concluding that their difficulties stem from their inability to get their message out and never from what their message actually is.
And so, rather than change the substance of the message, they’re grabbing an even bigger megaphone: an address to a joint session of Congress. Three out of the last four presidents gave just one address to a joint session of Congress, and all but one of them reserved such occasions for major international events, like a war or, in Ronald Reagan’s case, a breakthrough with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Only Bill Clinton used such a venue for a domestic priority: health-care reform.
That didn’t work out so well either.
Just seven months into Obama’s presidency, the White House is turning up the faders on the cowbell as loud as they will go. And, heck, if you love cowbell, it’s going to be a real treat. But in all the ways that matter, it may just end up being more noise.
– Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. © 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.