When in trouble, presidents have ways to escape the hubbub, deflect attention from what’s causing the problem, and wait for the whole thing to pass. In 1974, as Watergate was engulfing his presidency, President Nixon traveled to Egypt. A million people lined the roads to see him. Nixon aides quipped that “a million Egyptians can’t be wrong.” But they were wrong, and Nixon resigned a few weeks later.
In 1987, President Reagan was beset by the Iran-contra scandal. His advisers came up with a clever idea for him to emphasize in speeches, an “economic bill of rights.” Its acronym was EBOR, so it was half-jokingly referred to at the White House as “ebor.” Talking about it was preferable to addressing Iran-contra. But the press and public stayed focused on the scandal.
In the firestorm over Obamacare, President Obama has few of these tools of evasion at his disposal. His ability to change the subject from his embattled health insurance plan is limited. This is mostly his fault. Thus he was forced to yield last week to pressure to address the chorus of complaints generated by the cancellation of millions of individual policies.
Turning to foreign policy is a hardy perennial of presidents in jeopardy. But it didn’t help Nixon in a pinch, even though he’d been reasonably successful in foreign affairs. Obama’s success rate is abysmal. He had to be bailed out in Syria by Russian president Vladimir Putin. The French killed his deal with Iran on nuclear weapons. Traditional allies are leery of him.
That doesn’t leave much for him to say. If he leapfrogged the current impasse over Iran’s nuclear program and bombed its nuclear facilities, he would trump Obamacare. But he is unlikely in the extreme to do anything so bold or contrary to his current policy toward Iran.
He’s already tried one of his favorite tactics, the pivot. It’s designed to change the subject. It works like this: The White House reveals the president will “pivot” to issues he finds more congenial in hopes the press will follow his lead. The media often do. Indeed, his attempt to reduce coverage of Obamacare by shifting to immigration reform has partially succeeded, but not in the way Obama intended. Immigration has become more newsworthy, but not at the expense of Obamacare.
There are two reasons for this. The Obamacare story is too compelling for the media to slight. And Obama has pivoted so many times that the tactic has lost its credibility. Don Stewart, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s communications director, deserves credit for this. By relentlessly spotlighting Obama’s 20-plus pivots since 2009, he’s stirred skepticism about the seriousness of Obama’s issue-switching.
If the president asked Speaker John Boehner to allow a presidential address to Congress, Boehner might have to agree. But the bully pulpit hasn’t served Obama well. His speeches don’t move poll numbers. When he touted Obamacare, its favorability dropped. Last winter, he promoted gun control in a series of speeches. The impact was nil.
What about a press conference? Unless an imperiled president has something momentous to say—Obama didn’t when he took questions last week—there’s nothing to gain. Obama may get points just for showing up. But as usual, he filibustered in answer to questions and stuck to his favorite line that his sins were mostly ones of omission. It was a dreary spectacle.
There’s always the bipartisan track. Negotiations on a grand bargain on taxes and spending are ongoing. If Obama abandoned his insistence on a big tax hike, a deal might be reached. It would embellish his image overnight. But concessions to Republicans appear to be the farthest thing from Obama’s mind. On the contrary, he continues to trash them publicly as enemies of humanity.
Obama is more comfortable relying on his party’s liberal base. But it’s Democrats in Congress whom he needs to keep on board. And they’re starting to jump ship. His decision to allow insurers to resuscitate canceled policies for individuals may provide some relief. But there are flashpoints to come as Obamacare is implemented—that is, if the program’s website ever becomes functional. Congressional Democrats increasingly reject a role as grunts in Obama’s army.
Presidents have moral authority. It comes with the office. It allows them to ask the nation to trust them to do the right and honorable thing. But trust can be frittered away, and Obama has done just that with his lie about keeping one’s insurance. He can no longer say to Americans, trust me, and expect them to fall in line.
Obama is in a bind. To save Democratic incumbents in the 2014 election, he’ll have to accept further changes that mollify critics while undercutting Obamacare’s fragile financing scheme. For Republicans, there’s a lesson here: Keep pressuring Obama to stop forcing people to buy more insurance coverage than they want or need, offer an attractive health plan of their own, and await the day a Republican president buries Obamacare once and for all.