The Rose Garden: GOP Finds Weapons in Obama Team’s Words

Posted July 10, 2009 at 6:29pm

A series of White House message flubs in recent days have provided openings for Republicans to try to build momentum on the communications front and exploit

perceived administration weaknesses on key issues such as spending, health care and foreign policy.

White House officials take issue with the characterization in the media of some of the missteps, but there is little doubt that the statements have provided Republicans with grist to try to move the debate onto their turf.

“We’re getting whiplash trying to follow the administration and Congressional Democrats’ ever-changing messages on health care, the stimulus and even Iran,— cracked Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

The discord began with the boss himself, when President Barack Obama at a June 23 news conference offered what some characterized as an embarrassingly late condemnation of Iranian leaders.

At the time, Iran’s rulers were days into a crackdown on protesters who were raging that the country’s presidential election was stolen in favor of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Obama and his aides had been suggesting it would be counterproductive to the demonstrators for the United States to be perceived too strongly as taking a side.

“The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days,— Obama asserted at the press conference. “I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.—

When a reporter followed up with the question, “What took you so long?— Obama bristled.

“I don’t think that’s accurate,— he icily responded. “Track what I’ve been saying.—

But Republicans believed they were handed a golden opportunity to show they were ahead of him on the issue.

“The president’s playing catch-up right now,— House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said. “The biggest challenge is he didn’t get into the story earlier. In the House, Congressman Mike Pence [R-Ind.] really led having the House denouncing the violence against protesters.—

Then the White House started off last week on the wrong foot when Vice President Joseph Biden acknowledged three times on a Sunday morning talk show that the administration had misread the economy. He added that so did everyone else and that the numbers they were using were consensus figures that led the administration to underestimate predictions about future unemployment. But the damage was done.

Obama reeled Biden back in.

“Rather than say misread, we had incomplete information,— Obama said during a subsequent interview with NBC. In a separate session with ABC, he asserted: “What Vice President Biden was referring to was simply the fact that when we passed the stimulus, we hadn’t gotten the full report of the first-quarter contractions in the economy that turned out to be way worse than anybody had anticipated.—

And while Obama said the administration wouldn’t have done anything differently if it had the right numbers, Biden’s statement opened the door for Republicans to launch an attack suggesting the misreading of the economy led to an inappropriate response — the stimulus.

In a release titled “Misread,— the Senate GOP leadership asserted: “Vice President says they misread how bad the economy was’ but the stimulus sales pitch shows the misreading was on the stimulus itself.—

The stimulus proved the perfect stalking horse for the GOP amid increasing concern about growing deficit spending and higher-than-expected costs for health reform.

Obama adviser Laura Tyson did little to help when she said last Tuesday that it was time to start considering a second stimulus — an obvious acknowledgement that the first package was not performing well enough. White House officials were forced to reiterate their prevailing position that they are still mulling the effects of the first.

But Obama advisers weren’t done.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel suggested, according to last Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, that finding ways to increase accountability among private insurers was more important than having a government insurance option.

“The goal is to have a means and a mechanism to keep the private insurers honest,— Emanuel said in an interview with the newspaper. “The goal is non-negotiable; the path is— negotiable.

White House aides suggest Emanuel’s meaning may have been misconstrued. “Rahm was saying lines in the sand are not a useful tool when you are trying to reach an agreement,— said one White House official.

But whatever the interpretation, the possible ramifications of the remark seemed to become clear very quickly to Obama, who issued a statement just hours after the interview appeared reaffirming support for a government insurance option.

“I am pleased by the progress we’re making on health care reform and still believe, as I’ve said before, that one of the best ways to bring down costs, provide more choices, and assure quality is a public option that will force the insurance companies to compete and keep them honest,— Obama said.

Emanuel’s statement nevertheless stoked fears among some liberals that opponents of a public option would be emboldened to think they could roll the White House. And it gave GOP message-makers like Ferrier a chance to tweak the Democrats.

“This meeting is sure to be awkward,— she cheerfully opined before a late Tuesday session that included Emanuel and the House Democratic Caucus.