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?

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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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