Enough already, Mr. President!
Barack Obama’s incessant pleas in behalf of health care reform have reached a decibel level seldom before achieved by anyone in his job. The appeals became a crescendo over the weekend with taped appearances on the three leading nationally televised Sunday morning public affairs programs and another with comedy host David Letterman on his late night show.
And to think it wasn’t too long ago that presidents worried that too much television exposure might detract from the majesty of the office by making them all too familiar, warts and all, to the general public. When I was a kid, the president was sort of like the Wizard of Oz, this omnipotent, mysterious figure with a disembodied voice who guided us through our travails. Few of us ever thought we would meet him.
The “magic lantern” put an end to that, of course, and now boredom has replaced awe in the way many of us regard our chief executives, whom we realize are merely men after all and frequently as flawed as the rest of us — a fact we don’t particularly relish, considering that we elect each new one with the hope that they will cure all our ills.
Teddy Roosevelt said taking a cause to the people was the most effective device available to a president in achieving his initiatives. Obama has given Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit” a whole new meaning, spending a disproportionate amount of his precious time on radio, television, print interviews and public forums, including a major appearance before Congress hammering away at the need for health care reform. The result, if the polls are correct, has been one of diminishing returns. They show far less public enthusiasm for it than during the early stages of the presidential blitz, and Congress still seems a distance from achieving a detente on the issue.
Some supporters are quietly expressing relief that Obama will be spending much of his time in the next few days at the United Nations on foreign policy subjects that need attention, admitting privately that the president has made his argument on healthcare loud enough and long enough — without committing himself to any specific plan — and is in danger of causing a nationwide earache.
Much of this seems to be at the urging of his advisers who apparently feel that the president’s star power is limitless. Whether or not Obama believes this is immaterial. The fact is that his willingness to lend himself to almost every broadcast request clearly indicates a confidence in his own charisma, a characteristic that carried him from a first term in the Senate to the Oval Office, a stupendous achievement. But even rock stars burn out and political rock stars seem to do so at an accelerated rate.
That isn’t to suggest that the public has become thoroughly tired of this energetic, articulate young president — just that his ubiquitous image at the flick of a switch has tended to make him a bit too much the “big brother” for many Americans, who, recent surveys reveal, have become less enchanted with him. Their concerns are magnified by the enormous cost of action already taken and those proposed, including the overhauling of the health system that is 16 percent of the economy.
There is another factor. While the president has agreed to face the generally gentle and friendly interrogation of network anchors and a few obviously sycophantic interviewers, he has yet to throw himself into the lion pit of a general press conference. The few “press conferences” he has had were both limited and tightly controlled with only those chosen beforehand allowed to pose questions. He has yet to submit to a freewheeling question and answer session with the entire press corps as has been the case with other presidents.
It is perhaps time, as some of his supporters argue privately, for him to cool his jets, work behind the scenes and let the reform proposal take its course. They contend that without the familiarity caused by overexposure, Rep. Joe Wilson might not have dared to call him a liar during the congressional speech.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)