For public policy mavens, a weekend which began with the passing of Irving Kristol, the influential conservative essayist, climaxed with President Obama being on most every talk show Sunday morning. And, throughout, there was Glenn Beck sticking out his tongue at us from the cover of the new Time magazine.
Kristol and Obama didn't have a lot in common ideologically but were united by a reflexive penchant for the systematic and analytical. Coming from different ends of the political spectrum, they each embodied an empiricist thrust; by and large looking at policies and wondering, "Does this really work?" In an age in which the provocative (Beck) can trump the smart and correct, one can imagine Kristol, who once called a conservative "a liberal mugged by reality," and Obama actually getting along for hours in some quiet den, shooting the intellectual breeze.
On Sunday, the aim of Cool Hand Obama aim was more tactical, namely in trying to cut through frustrations (and worrisome polling) with the health care debate in a less formal, less aggressive manner than in his address to the joint session of Congress. If one hadn't known what was up, it was clear in perhaps the most revealing of his ABC-NBC-CBS sessions, one with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, that this was surely one of those periods in which, "I've said I'm just not breaking through."
If you live in Chicago, as perhaps was true in other television markets, your remote had better been fully charged since no sooner was his "Meet the Press" session with David Gregory concluded than his roughly similar dialogues with Stephanopoulos and CBS' Bob Schieffer aired simultaneously. Public policy ping-pong was now underway for some viewers.
But the talking points for all were self-evident: the status quo is economically unacceptable; the president's prime goals start with increasing insurance coverage; achieving insurance reforms is necessary; devising a deficit-neutral plan is a must; lessening health care inflation is inherent; the vaunted "public option" is not a "silver bullet"; we can now "narrow the differences" among competing Congressional plans in which, he again insisted, there's consensus on 80 percent of what's on the table; and, putting on his historian's hate, there was the reminder again (with mentions of Hamilton, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and others) that change is always hard and rife with controversy.
The questioning was, by and large, predictable: health care, former President Carter's claims of racism as impacting the debate, and possibly hefty troop increases in Afghanistan. All the anchors were characteristically firm but polite, tending to resort to the tried-and-true formulation of "some of your critics say," lest the interviewee think they actually felt that way.
As I clicked between CBS and ABC, Obama was rather interesting in proffering the notion to Schieffer that the passions evident in the health care debate are a "proxy for how much government should be involved in the economy," especially given second thoughts about its financial sector interventions. It was also a way, and most probably sincere, to downplay the matter of racist or other suspect motives by his opponents.
Gregory tried and came up short in pinning down the president on "hard choices" that must be made, though his exchange with Stephanopoulos was the most engaging since the host got down a bit more in the weeds; in particular, as to whether there were inherent tax hikes tied to increasing coverage and, also, decreased coverage for some with Medicare. He pressed and pressed, with a relatively defensive Obama deflecting the prime suspicion by likening an insurance mandate to our need to have auto insurance when we drive, as well as arguing that the host's reliance on a dictionary definition of the word "tax" was somehow itself evidence that the host was stretching. That assertion was not very convincing (nor was that of de facto ignorance concerning ACORN, the embattled grassroots advocacy organization).
And, yet, the three of five interviews taped Friday amounted to an impressive performance; again revealing a very smart, self-confident man willing to seeking certain progressive values by being empirical and cutting deals if necessary. It was so utterly contrary to the media culture which, he again reiterated, he finds so wayward in its heralding of the loud and extreme. There he was: quiet, modest, thoughtful, willing to diplomatically engage while still being firm.
Like Irving Kristol, Obama proved an anti-Beck on this TiVo-challenging morning. And, as Kristol's own legacy proves, every once in while the understated can wield more influence than we might imagine.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)