Chances are President Obama was asking himself one question as he was interviewed last week on Fox News: “Whose idea was this?” That is one of Obama’s favorite questions, according to Game Change, the bestselling (and definitive) book on the 2008 presidential campaign. He usually aims the question at advisers in anticipation of their telling him the idea was his and had proved to be a good one.
For Obama, the decision to be interviewed by Fox’s Bret Baier was definitely not a good one. Baier asked many of the questions that White House reporters would ask if Obama held a full-blown presidential press conference (which he hasn’t since July 22). The president answered few of them, and those he did, he answered poorly. I counted 19 questions and only three responsive answers.
It was the White House that proposed the interview, though Fox and other news organizations routinely have requests on file for Q-and-A sessions with the president. Dan Pfeiffer, the communications director, called Fox on Monday to arrange an interview for two days later. The sit-down lasted 18 minutes, slightly longer than Obama wanted, and a few minutes were devoted to a less formal “walk and talk” in which Baier asked Obama about Tiger Woods’s return to golf.
The interview was, presumably, part of Obama’s end game to win House approval of his health care bill. It couldn’t have helped much. The cool, smooth-talking, confident Obama wasn’t in evidence. He mostly looked unhappy. In response to -Baier’s relentlessly tough but fair line of questioning, Obama stuck to tired White House talking points.
The worst moment came when Obama appeared to confirm that his plan double counts hundreds of billions in Medicare money. This is a point made both by the Congressional Budget Office and the chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Here’s what Obama said:
On the one hand what you’re doing is you’re eliminating insurance subsidies within Medicare that aren’t making anybody healthier but are fattening the profits of insurance companies. Everybody agrees that that is not a wise way to spend money. Now, most of those savings go right back into helping seniors, for example, closing the donut hole.
There’s only one way to understand this. First the funds are saved (mostly from Medicare Advantage). Then they’re spent to close the “donut hole” in the Medicare prescription drug program that now denies coverage at a certain level of expenditure before reinstating it at a higher level. Is it proper to count as savings money that you turn around and spend? I don’t think so.
Obama denied his plan spends “the money twice.” Of course, it doesn’t. That’s not the problem. Obamacare saves and spends the same pile of money. That is the problem. He does this to achieve two goals at once: helping pay for his plan by cutting Medicare funds and improving the drug program by using the billions in cuts to close the gap in coverage.
The president, I suspect, was surprised by the subjects broached by Baier. They had to do with the controversial procedures for passing his bill in the House and Senate, sweetheart deals to line up votes, double counting, and the expensive “doctor fix” which was stripped out of the legislation.
On the fix, Obama said the need to bar scheduled, annual reductions in Medicare fees for doctors “has nothing to do with my health care bill.” Indeed, he inherited the practice. But Baier noted he’d vowed to “change Washington” instead of “doing it the same way.” Obama didn’t respond.
Even at his eloquent best, the president has been unable to stir public support for health care reform. He was credited by Democrats with delivering an unusually passionate speech on health care at a rally in Strongsville, Ohio, two days before his Fox interview. And he did come up with a fresh claim for his bill: It’s bipartisan. “Every proposal has been put on the table,” he said. “Every argument has been made. . . . we’ve ended up with a proposal that incorporates the best ideas from Democrats and Republicans.”
It’s hard to believe he’d utter such a whopper. Every Republican in the House and Senate opposes his bill. Poll after poll shows only a tiny fraction of self-identified Republicans back it. And the “best” recommendations of Republicans—unfettered purchase of health insurance across state lines, law abuse reform, special pools to insure those with preexisting conditions—were excluded. The separate House, Senate, and White House bills were drafted by a cast of characters limited to Democrats only.
In Ohio, Obama invoked one of his favorite rhetorical tools, the straw man, to justify his claim. His bill rejected urgings from the left for “government-run care” and from the right to simply “unleash the insurance industry . . . by providing less oversight and fewer rules.” Yes, he really said that.
What’s puzzling is why the president hasn’t altered his argument for Obamacare in any meaningful way over the past year. A majority of Americans has rejected his case. As he’s been making it, his job approval rating has dipped into the 40s, the level at which a president becomes a liability to members of his party running for office. Republican Scott Brown won a Senate seat in Massachusetts running as Mr. Anti-Obamacare.
But maybe all the president’s words in public don’t matter. Maybe the speeches, the address to Congress, the town halls, and the television interviews (even the misbegotten Fox one) are beside the point. In the end, Obama has one important political asset: large Democratic majorities in Congress. Given this, the only thing that may matter is what he tells members of his party, what promises he makes, and what he says might happen to them politically if they cross him. All of that in private, naturally.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.