Prime-time policy talk

PRIME-TIME POLICY TALK…. Press-conference analysis is a bit like art criticism — capable, knowledgeable observers can watch the exact same thing at the same time, and come away with very different impressions about what they’ve seen.

President Obama held an hour-long press conference at the White House last night, and the reactions are all over the map. Paul Krugman really liked what he saw, and was very impressed. Kevin Drum was unimpressed and disappointed. Joe Klein thought Obama was great; publius thought Obama was underwhelming. Jonathan Cohn liked what he saw and praised the president’s willingness “to speak to America like adults”; Howard Fineman did not like what he saw and found the presser boring.

For what it’s worth, I’m in the impressed camp. Obama’s command of the substance of this debate was obvious, and he hit every point I wanted to see him make.

Yesterday, the NYT ran a piece about health care reform noting that many Americans are watching this policy debate unfold and are asking themselves, “What’s in it for me?” By last night, the president was approaching the discussion in the exact same way: “I realize that with all the charges and criticisms that are being thrown around in Washington, a lot of Americans may be wondering: What’s in this for me? How does my family stand to benefit from health-insurance reform?” Obama proceeded to answer those questions reasonably well, and with quite a bit of detail.

The president succeeded in acknowledging public anxiety, correcting misperceptions, and presenting the need for reform in personal ways. He made a plausible, if deliberately incomplete, case for hurrying the process along. Obama has a habit of taking on detractors’ criticism directly, without sounding defensive, and turning the attacks around to his advantage. We saw that play out many times last night.

The president also exuded confidence about the task at hand. Major media outlets have made it seem as if the White House has been under siege for weeks by reform skeptics, but Obama didn’t look like a guy who’s been beaten up; he looked like a guy who was going to win.

As a substantive matter, I’m not sure how much actual news the press conference generated. Obama once again made a plug for paying for reform through limiting “itemized deductions for the wealthiest Americans,” which Congress doesn’t seem to like, but he added that the idea of surtax meets his general “principle.”

I thought Obama was probably at his strongest with these remarks:

“If somebody told you that there is a plan out there that is guaranteed to double your health-care costs over the next 10 years, that’s guaranteed to result in more Americans losing their health care, and that is by far the biggest contributor to our federal deficit, I think most people would be opposed to that. Well, that’s the status quo. That’s what we have right now. So if we don’t change, we can’t expect a different result.

“And that’s why I think this is so important — not only for those families out there who are struggling and who need some protection from abuses in the insurance industry or need some protection from skyrocketing costs, but it’s also important for our economy.

“And by the way, it’s important for families’ wages and incomes. One of the things that doesn’t get talked about is the fact that when premiums are going up, and the costs to employers are going up, that’s money that could be going into people’s wages and incomes. And over the last decade, we basically saw middle-class families; their incomes and wages flatlined. Part of the reason is, because health-care costs are gobbling that up.”

The more the president makes the case this way, the better off his chances of success are.

As for some of the lingering questions, Obama once again touted the benefits of a public plan, but did not insist that it be part of the package passed by Congress. While he emphasized the need to tackle reform quickly, the president did not reiterate the pre-recess August deadline and made no mention of asking lawmakers to work through August.

What did you think?