Political Players: Obama Communications Guru Sees Health Care Passing Before November

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The following is an Atlantic interview with former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn. One of President Obama's closest outside advisers, Dunn argues it was "inevitable" his approval rating would come down in such a tough economy and

- says "honest people can disagree" about whether Congress created jobs,

- believes Democrats "in a defensive crouch" will lose,

- blames Republicans for obstruction, and

- previews the 2010 Democratic message.


BRIAN GOLDSMITH: What do you think is the most important lesson President Obama and his team have learned after a year on the job?

ANITA DUNN: I think every president learns many lessons after the first year on the job.  I think as the White House and the president look at 2010, the one thing that's clear is that they're going to set clear priorities and have some very strong messages behind those priorities.  They're going work closely with Congress but not be afraid to disagree with Congress when there's a disagreement.  And, at the end of the day, continue to reach out to Republicans.  I think the lesson from 2009 was people really do want change.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: In what ways do you think the messaging wasn't strong enough?Anita Dunn - Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images - embed.jpg

ANITA DUNN: I'm not sure it's that the messaging wasn't strong enough in 2009.  I think 2009 was a story about coming in in the middle of this disaster--rescuing an economy that was headed off the cliff, having to rush through a number of emergency things in a very short period of time in order to prevent further economic devastation.

And to do that in the context of a pandemic and two wars, as well as the economic stress every American family was facing.  I think the challenge was gigantic.  I think that the achievements are underappreciated right now, but that every day that goes by what he did to save this economy will become more and more apparent.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: So was it inevitable, then, that his approval rating would drop to where it is, approximately the high 40's?

ANITA DUNN: I think it's hard for a president who is leading a country with 10 percent unemployment to have high approval ratings.  I also think he understood that he needed to do very difficult things in order to get the economy back on the right track for future economic and job growth.

And the president's always been someone who takes a long view.  He doesn't worry about day-to-day poll numbers.  He also, as he said during the campaign, is someone who believes in telling the American people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.  So it was inevitable that his high ratings would come down--that he had to do difficult but very important and necessary things.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Next week, the president convenes his Blair House summit to try to save some kind of health care reform.  Besides the election of Scott Brown, what do you think went wrong?

ANITA DUNN: Well, I don't think that things went wrong necessarily.  I think the election of Scott Brown delayed the health reform that's needed in this country. The same Republicans who spent the month of December saying, we want to be at the table, we want it to be on television, are now complaining that they're going to be at the table, and that it's going to be on television.

The reality is that the House and the Senate both passed health care bills last year that are quite similar to each other, and embody the principles of what the president laid out in May as the important principles for real reform in this country--and we are closer than we've ever been.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins would say, we didn't make a political decision, even if others in our party did, just to oppose this down the line.  It was that the president made it clear he wasn't going to be bipartisan.

ANITA DUNN: Well, I think he'd be very surprised to hear that from Senator Snowe, in particular, given the fact that she voted for the Senate Finance Committee bill to get it out of committee.  And that her concerns, and her ideas, were certainly incorporated into the bill.  The president spent a great deal of time talking to both of those senators.

But the reality here is that those who say we need more time, it has been 70 years.  Those who say, oh, we haven't had enough of a chance to look at the bill, these aren't new ideas or new approaches.  They're very similar to ones that have been talked about for the last 10 years. The Republican Party made a fundamental decision last year that they weren't going to work with the president, that they weren't going pass a thing.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: The president conceded he could have done a better job communicating about health care.  As a former White House communications director, do you ever look back and think, "I wish I'd handled that a little differently?"

ANITA DUNN: I don't think you can ever have a job like White House communications director and not think of things you wish you had handled differently at least 20 times a day. I think that there are things he could have done differently.  There are things that we will do differently.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: What specific things could you have done differently?

ANITA DUNN: I'm not going to go through the list, but the reality is that this is in some ways an ugly process--the legislative process, the sausage-making. I also think that it's not just communication.  It's the overall scope and complexity of something that is always a very, very scary thing for people--to think about change of what they have.

It is always easier in communications to be against something than for something.  The Republicans chose that route. It is much easier to take a little piece and go to people and say, this is what you're going to lose, or this is what potentially you could lose, than to be able to communicate the overall gain. At the end of the day--after this bill passes and becomes law--people will feel the benefit.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Are you a hundred percent confident that it's going to pass?

ANITA DUNN: I am confident that at the end of the day the people in Congress are going to say, we must get this done, and that the president will lead them to that solution.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: And when do you think is the end of the day?

ANITA DUNN: Sometime before November 2010.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: What's your response to the critics in his own party who have said the president played way too much of an inside game for too long?

ANITA DUNN: I think that if in Massachusetts, the Democratic candidate got more than 47 percent of the vote, people would review this very differently.
       
The reality is that if you recall the last time a Democratic president tried this, Bill Clinton, he was criticized for not doing enough of an inside game.  I think it's always easy for people to sit around and second guess what was done. The House and the Senate, have both passed health bills. Let's not overlook the fact that we actually are closer than we've ever been in this country to making this law.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: In his State of the Union last month, the president urged Democrats not to run for the hills.  And yet it seems like several key Democrats have done just that, including your good friend Evan Bayh, so how come this White House hasn't been able to persuade them to stay and fight?

ANITA DUNN: Well, I think every senator, every member of Congress, makes the decision whether or not to run for reelection based on personal circumstances.  There have been a number of Republican House members over the past couple of weeks who have chosen not to run for reelection as well.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Were you upset when Senator Bayh said Congress hasn't created a single job, given the record of the Recovery Act?

ANITA DUNN: I think honest people can disagree. But the Recovery Act's results are well documented. I think that he was making more of a point about Congress and not necessarily speaking about the Recovery Act there.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: And speaking of which, the president celebrated its first anniversary this week but polls show that he's not getting any credit for it.  People confuse it with the bailouts.  Only six percent believe there were any tax cuts in the stimulus, even thought that was a third of the bill.

What happened there?

ANITA DUNN: Well, I think it's very clear that when you have an economy that has been as weak as our economy for as long as it's been, with an unemployment rate as high as it is, that people are going to be upset.  And it's not surprising that all of that emergency legislation that passed in a very short period of time got kind of muddled together.

I think that in the long run people will look at the Recovery Act and they will say that was a critically important part of laying a new foundation for future economic growth.  When we have job growth in this country later this year and into the decade, people will look back and they will say that was the right thing to do.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: When you worked at the White House you famously tangled with Fox News.  But it seems these days that coverage of the president is almost as tough from liberal outlets like The Huffington Post.  Why do you think the base is so unhappy?

ANITA DUNN: Obviously when you're in the White House, you're going to get criticized.  You deserve to get criticized.  But I think at the time it was clear that the objection with some of the right wing media was a very different kind of objection.

The reality is that Democrats want progress.  They want Washington to get shaken up.  They want change.  The president feels that way himself.  I think people are saying, we expect more from Washington, and the president would be the first to agree with that.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Some liberals have said the president is better off after the midterms losing some of the swing state Democrats who have given the White House a hard time on every vote.  Do you agree with that?

ANITA DUNN: I think that there are many Democrats who have cast some extraordinarily tough votes.  And the president has had to make some very tough decisions to do what's right for this country.  I think that we're facing some very, very hard midterm races--extraordinary challenges in some of those races.

The people who took the tough votes but are out there aggressively talking about what they did to help the economy are much better off than people who are running from a defensive crouch.  If you are in a defensive crouch, in this environment, you will lose.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Going forward, should we expect to see a national Democratic message this year?

ANITA DUNN: I think that these races are won by individual candidates, in individual match-ups, but the party that controls the White House always has a national message.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: And what do you think that national message will be?

ANITA DUNN: President Obama came to Washington in tough times and made tough decisions to get this country on the right track. He's standing up to special interests.  And that those Republicans who have been standing on the sidelines have been basically protecting the status quo and the way Washington works and the way Washington does business.  The president is not satisfied with that.  He will not settle for that.

He will continue to fight for change, whether it is to make sure that big banks can't do what they did before and basically bring this economy to its knees with tough financial regulations and making them pay back the money that the American taxpayers spent to save them.  Whether it is to stand up for students getting student loans without middlemen taking their cut. Whether it is standing up to the insurance companies that are raising their rates by 35 percent in California.  So the president's going to fight for middle class families.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Your relationship with the president actually started when you advised his primary opponent in the Illinois Senate race. Many people then told me you were the unsung hero of the 2008 campaign.  The president persuaded you to join his administration temporarily.  Now your husband, Bob Bauer, is the White House counsel.  Close as you are to Barack Obama, what do you wish most people knew about him that you think they probably don't?

ANITA DUNN: What is extraordinary about this president, and what I admire so much about him, is his character--his ability to make the tough decisions, understanding the political ramifications, but his absolute determination to do what's right for this nation.


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Brian Goldsmith is a contributor to TheAtlantic.com. A former political producer for the CBS Evening News, he is now a student at Stanford Law School.

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