Suppose President Obama and his aides had decided to take on the worst offender among the big insurance companies this fall.
Suppose the White House had highlighted the failure of the company to provide quality care, the abuses in which it has engaged and the behind-the-scenes campaigning by a self-interested corporation to influence the health-care debate in a manner that helps it while harming Americans.
Suppose presidential aides highlighted the initiative in broadcast and cable interviews and reinforced the message with carefully crafted talking points that said the insurance company’s top officers were not helping Americans to get medical care but rather engaging in self-interested profiteering.
Suppose activist groups such as MoveOn.org leapt in to help advance the cause by urging Democratic members of Congress to denounce and boycott the insurance company and its products.
There would, undoubtedly, be complaints from those who make it their business to defend the indefensible.
But there would, as well, be cheering from Americans who would finally have a sense that the Obama administration was ready to fight as hard as was necessary to change a system that leaves tens of millions of Americans without the insurance they need and tens of millions more with inadequate insurance.
And the administration would not have to peddle a scheme that allows states to opt out of reform — by rejecting the option — as some kind of victory for what was supposed to be national health care.
By any measure, time spent assaulting the worst of the insurance companies would be well spent.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration has not chosen to wage a fight that might matter.
Rather, the president’s aides continue to wrangle with Fox News, griping about the network’s Republican-friendly reporting and commentary. MoveOn is urging members of Congress to join in the charade. And Obama himself is getting dragged into the discussion, telling NBC that: “I think what our advisers have simply said is that we are going to take media as it comes. And if media is operating basically as a talk radio format then that’s one thing, and if it’s operating as a news outlet that’s another but it’s not something I’m losing sleep over.”
Obama should be “losing sleep” over the fact that he is engaged in this absurd diversion of resources and attention from the real fights his administration ought to be engaged in.
There’s no question that Fox commentators can and will continue to be ridiculous in their Republicanism.
But not all Fox personalities are cut from the same cloth as Glenn Beck.
More significantly, the network has a significant viewership and surveys show that a good many of those viewers are independent-minded Americans who tune in as much for the entertainment value of particular shows as for conservative cheerleading.
Obama and his Cabinet members don’t have to do the network any favors. But they should recognize the value of appearing on Fox programs that they are responsible (or, at the least, tolerable). And, above all, they should stop making statements that only help Fox run up its ratings as the networks most dim-witted hosts claim they are under attack for “asking the tough questions.”
Helen Thomas, the veteran White House reporter who knows a thing or two about the relationships between presidents and the press, counsels that the administration should “stay out of these fights.”
Just as when she courageously challenges the excesses of the Bush-Cheney administration – a fight that put her on the wrong side of the Fox blowhards – Thomas is right to challenge this administration’s wrongheaded approach to the media.
Thomas is not alone.
ABC News Senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper challenged Obama administration spokesman Robert Gibbs on the issue last week.
It was a telling exchange:
Tapper: It’s escaped none of our notice that the White House has decided in the last few weeks to declare one of our sister organizations “not a news organization” and to tell the rest of us not to treat them like a news organization. Can you explain why it’s appropriate for the White House to decide that a news organization is not one –
Gibbs: Jake, we render, we render an opinion based on some of their coverage and the fairness that, the fairness of that coverage.
Tapper: But that’s a pretty sweeping declaration that they are “not a news organization.” How are they any different from, say –
Gibbs: ABC –
Tapper: ABC. MSNBC. Univision. I mean how are they any different?
Gibbs: You and I should watch sometime around 9 o’clock tonight. Or 5 o’clock this afternoon.
Tapper: I’m not talking about their opinion programming or issues you have with certain reports. I’m talking about saying thousands of individuals who work for a media organization, do not work for a “news organization” — why is that appropriate for the White House to say?
Gibbs: That’s our opinion.
Of course, Gibbs has a right to that opinion – as do other members of the administration’s communications team.
But they really might want to ponder Washington Post writer Ruth Marcus’ observation that the fight with Fox – which Marcus “has a distinct Nixonian — Agnewesque? — aroma at worst” – “distracts attention from the Obama administration’s substantive message.”
That ought to be what concerns the White House – not whether Glenn Beck throwing tantrums.
When presidential aides are going to other networks to talk about Fox, when press briefings focus on the question of whether the White House is trying to define what is and what is not news, the Obama administration is off message – way off message.
And it is wasting time that could be better spent.
Seriously, just imagine if all this energy from the Fox fight was going into a discussion about insurance company profiteering.
Then, Obama and his aides would be steering the debate in a direction that would dramatically enhance the prorspects of securing a robust public option — without “trigger” and “opt-out” gimmickry. (And, despite what Majority Leader Harry Reid may say: The Senate compromise that allows states to reject the public option — via an opt-out clause — is a politically and morally flawed approach.)
As it is, the president and his team still sound whiny when they should be projecting an image of focused and functional strength as they enter the most critical stage of the fight over health care reform where the unanswered question remains: Will the administration and the Congress really call the insurance industry to account?
The answer to that question is going to matter a lot more than the resolution of the wrangling with conservative media outlets that may or may not deserve a few minutes of the president’s time – but which certainly do not deserve the attention that comes from being targeted for condemnation by the White House.