Obama’s Focus Appears to Shift

Posted September 30, 2009 at 6:38pm

President Barack Obama has recently vacated the health care reform bully pulpit, just as evidence trickles in that the media blitz he waged earlier this month is paying off.

The president has not done a big-time health care rally since an appearance in College Park, Md., on Sept. 17. He has hardly mentioned the issue since his appearance on five Sunday talk shows Sept. 20. He was offered an inviting platform at the National Institutes of Health on Wednesday for a lengthy disquisition on the issue, but he barely mentioned it.

And Obama will be well out of pocket Friday when he appears in Copenhagen to pitch Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics. He departs later today.

The president has detoured into the realm of foreign policy. Last week, he attended events at the United Nations and hosted the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh. This week, he is holding sessions with his closest advisers to decide what to do about the war in Afghanistan. The White House is also focused on talks with Iran that begin today.

Meanwhile, Congress is in town and struggling to position a health bill for passage in the House and Senate. But White House officials are quick to point out that Obama remains engaged behind the scenes, and they insist world events have not thrown him off the health care track.

“The president has been talking and meeting with Members this week as the legislative process continues to move forward in both houses,— a White House official said. Vice President Joseph Biden, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and even first lady Michelle Obama have also taken up some of the slack with public appearances of their own.

Asked Tuesday whether, with the focus on Iran this week and the G-20 and the U.N. last week, the White House was losing control of its health care message, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded with a terse “no.—

Early indicators show that the president’s numerous appearances in early and mid-September might have moved up the poll numbers for his health reform agenda. The blitz included the Sunday talk-show junket and no less than six events devoted substantially or wholly to health care reform, including a prime-time address to Congress.

A just-released poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the number of people who think tackling health care reform is “more important than ever— rose from 53 percent in August to 57 percent in September. The percentage of people who think their family will be better off with reform moved from 36 percent in August to 42 percent this month, and the percentage who think the country would be better off rose from 45 percent to 53 percent.

A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted Sept. 19-23 put the number of people who favor “offering everyone a government-administered health insurance plan— at 65 percent, up from 60 percent at the end of August. Those who approve of Obama’s handling of the health care issue gained 7 points, from 40 percent to 47 percent.

Democratic lawmakers are generally sympathetic to Obama’s need to attend to other issues, according to a House Democratic leadership aide.

“Members were energized by the president’s speech to Congress and have seen him devoting time to health care, but they also recognize that there are a lot of other very important issues,— the aide said. “I haven’t heard any frustration expressed about the president showing a lack of engagement.—

One House Republican leadership aide suggested that the president’s public foray into foreign policy showed the weakness of his omnivorous approach to tackling issues. “That the president has had to take his eye off the ball on health care shows how overloaded their agenda is,— the aide said. “The White House has to realize that there’s a lot more to being president than sloganeering — you actually have to work to make this happen.—