Obama’s Town Hall

The Speaker’s Lobby: Obama’s Town Hall

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

08 September 2009


Democratic lawmakers spent much of August enduring catcalls about health care reform at vitriolic town hall meetings. So as they return to Washington today, many probably think President Obama should walk a mile in their shoes. Rather than the president delivering a primetime speech Wednesday night before a Joint Session of Congress, lawmakers could convert the address into a town hall. That way, Mr. Obama can get a sense of what lawmakers stomached from angry constituents who gathered in school gymnasiums, libraries and firehouses.


I can see it now.


In an effort to maintain decorum at the presidential town hall, the White House positions signs next to the Will Rogers Statue outside the House chamber. The signs state the rules for the meeting: Please be respectful of your neighbor’s opinions. No shouting, heckling or profanity. Please remain in your seat unless you are asking a question.


Thinking fast, someone scribbled an addendum to the rules on a sheet of notebook paper and tacked it to the sign. It asks Blue Dog Democrats to check their guns at the door to the House chamber.


For lawmakers who want to ask Mr. Obama questions, the administration stations outgoing White House aide Van Jones at a card table just outside the center door to the House. Lawmakers write out their questions on a piece of paper. In exchange, Jones gives them a raffle ticket. At the end of his prepared remarks, President Obama will ask Vice President Biden to draw the “winning” tickets to field questions from lawmakers on the House floor.


Then it’s time for the show to begin. Mr. Obama enters the House chamber to a cacophony of applause and boos. Some loyal supporters chant: “O-BAM-A! O-BAM-A! O-BAM-A!” Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) wields a sign that states “Do it for Dad.”


But overall, the support is tepid.


Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) hold up hand-written, cardboard placards that read: “Public Option Now!” Some Blue Dogs stand quietly, with their arms folded.


Meantime, Republicans jeer and boo at the president. Reps. Tom Price (R-GA) and Phil Gingery (R-GA) display signs that say “No Socialized Medicine.” The sign belonging to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) reads “Don’t Pull the Plug on Grandma.” Some conservatives hoist posters bearing Mr. Obama’s image, a toothbrush mustache penciled in above his lips. Another holds a poster that depicts the White House emblazoned with a Soviet hammer and cycle. Reps. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) and Virginia Foxx (R-NC) crow from the rear of the chamber, both waving a copy of the U.S. Constitution.


Now the president is getting a taste of what lawmakers encountered for the past month.


After brief remarks, President Obama starts fielding questions. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) is up first. He asks the president what part of the Constitution grants the federal government authority to dabble in health care.


Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) is next. Kucinich commends Mr. Obama for trying to reform health care. But he blasts the president for not going far enough. President Obama grows agitated as other lawmakers stand up and start shouting. The Congressman sticks to his guns. Finally, the president has had enough. Knowing that Kucinich once said at a presidential debate that he saw a UFO, President Obama steals a page from the town hall playbook of Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA).


“On what planet do you spend most of your time?” an exasperated Mr. Obama asks of the Cleveland Democrat.


Of course, this is farce. And a presidential town hall with lawmakers isn’t going to happen. But there are hunks of acrimony from all sides over the president’s health care proposal. Conservatives can’t stand the idea. Liberals fret the reforms won’t be deep enough. And moderate Democrats believe the White House and the Democratic leadership is hanging their political futures out to dry.


On Friday, word came that President Obama convened a telephone conference with about 25 of the most-liberal members of the House. Representatives of the Congressional Black Caucus and Progressive Caucus implored Mr. Obama to include a “robust” government-backed health care option. They urged the president not to dial down the approximately $1 trillion price tag.


What came as a surprise is that word of the conclave filtered out through Capitol Hill, not the White House. The White House press corps peppered the communications staff about the meeting. The staff there apparently wasn’t even aware of it. Meantime, Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey momentarily seized control of the message from the White House, spouting to reporters how they emphasized the importance of their goals to the president.


So the White House allowed the most-liberal lawmakers in Congress to bang the drum for their policy positions without even alerting the communications staff there was a meeting. That’s emblematic of the Obama Administration’s profuse failure to properly message health care reform. It also reflects just how unclear the political endgame is. This is vexing as a big, expensive, government-operated option splits liberal and conservative Democrats in the House and spells potential failure of the measure in the more moderate Senate.


Here’s the stark reality that faces Democrats:


The so-called government-run “public option” is one of the most-controversial elements of the health care fight. Conservatives demonize the public option as “socialism.” They wring their hands about what it means for the growth of government. Meantime, liberals embrace the public option. They argue that the government must be involved as a final backstop for those who are unable to secure health care coverage from the private sector.

This is the reality facing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). So to get a bill, Pelosi and Reid may have to tailor their health care bills to match where the votes are in both the House and Senate.


There are approximately 60 to 90 hardline, pro-public option Democrats in the House. Most are liberals and progressives. There is almost universal support for a public option from the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Progressive Caucus. Meantime, Pelosi knows an expensive, more liberally-designed health care bill could cost her the support of most if not all of the 52 moderate to conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House. That could be enough to torpedo the entire measure. Meantime, a bill that cuts costs and is too “moderate” loses the liberals. But that’s where the power of President Obama, Pelosi and Reid come in.


Imagine if Democrats forge a bill that peels back the scope and cost of the program and secures the votes of almost all of the Blue Dog Democrats. Now, Pelosi garners the support of more than 50 moderates and conservatives in her caucus. Granted, there are 60 to 90 liberals who feel stung. But if Mr. Obama and the Speaker of the House can’t cajole 40 or 50 of those liberals to vote for the bill, then they are bereft of any political capital and don’t deserve to hold leadership positions.


But more importantly, if President Obama and Pelosi can lean on the liberals to accept toned-down legislation, that helps them score support in the Senate. A more “tame” package could win support of moderate Democrats such as Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NE), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Mary Landrieu (D-LA) Arlen Specter (D-PA), Evan Bayh (D-IN) and court Republicans like Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME).


And at this stage, the Democrats might consider dropping any notions of “going it alone.” Health care reform is radioactive. If Democrats are wise, they’ll structure a bill to gain Republican support. Otherwise, as Colin Powell said about the war in Iraq, the Pottery Barn rule applies here as well: you break it, you buy it. The hellish opposition to the bill that Democrats witnessed in August attests to how dangerous politically it is to “go it alone.” If the Democrats are mindful of their big majorities, they might want to rework the legislation to gain significant GOP support. Remember how toxic the financial bailout bill was last fall? Democrats agreed to carry the water for an unpopular, Republican administration. But in the end, they prevailed on dozens of Republicans in both bodies to back the rescue plan. Otherwise, the public would have tarred Democrats with the unpopularity of that package.


Yes, Democrats are gun shy after their town halls. And while the president’s address won’t be the same as the rowdy forums lawmakers suffered through, Wednesday is the president’s town hall. And unless Mr. Obama changes some serious minds and lays out a workable strategy, then Democrats could a large price at the ultimate town hall: the November, 2010 voting booths.


-         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.


-         FOX’s Major Garrett contributed to this report.