When it comes to public opinion about the new health care law, it was the sweetheart deals and the closed-door meetings — every bit as much as the substance of the president's bill — that made it unpopular. The public was paying close attention and was disgusted by what it saw.
The White House is rightfully savoring its victory on health care, but it also understands the political damage the president suffered because of the way the bill was written and passed. As the president explained in January on ABC, the process contradicted one of his signature campaign promises.
"Part of what I had campaigned on was changing how Washington works, opening up transparency, and I think the health care debate, as it unfolded, legitimately raised concerns — not just among my opponents but also among supporters — that we just don't know what's going on," he said. "And it's an ugly process, and it looks like there are a bunch of back-room deals."
'Gator-Aid' And Other Pork Projects
This week, many of those backroom deals were painfully extracted from the bill. They included the infamous "Cornhusker Kickback" that gave Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson a special deal on Medicaid. And "Gator-aid," a special deal Sen. Bill Nelson got for his Florida seniors. Back in December, the Senate didn't just add these deals to the bill; Democratic Leader Harry Reid seemed completely out of touch with public anger when he defended them.
"That's what legislation is all about," Reid said at the time. "There's 100 senators here, and I don't know if there's a senator that doesn't have something in this bill that was important to them. And if they don't have something in it important to them, then it doesn't speak well of them."
All of those backroom deals hurt the Obama brand, and the president knew it. He had famously promised to hold health care negotiations live on C-SPAN. That's why, when the bill was teetering on the edge of defeat, he suggested two televised health care meetings with Republicans. Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta said that going forward, the president should do that again.
"I think the more he does of that — the more he opens up the process of government — I think he will benefit from that," Podesta said.
Does that mean that as the White House moves on to other issues, there will be more televised summits? They wouldn't mind, White House officials said.
Congress Copes With Earmarks
Congress, too, is trying to respond to public anger about all of that ugly legislative sausage-making. Over the course of the health care debate, Congress' approval rating dropped to 17 percent, a historic low. In a new Pew Research Center poll, "corrupt" was one of the two most common adjectives people used to describe Congress.
Earlier this month, in an effort to address this fury, House Democrats announced that they will ban all earmarks for corporations. Then, House Republicans one-upped them by announcing that they would ban all earmarks for the rest of this year.
In announcing the move, House Minority leader John Boehner said, "The American people see this earmark process as an example of a broken Washington. I think what the American people want to see is a process that does have all the transparency and accountability it ought to have."
Earmarks, of course, are those special appropriations for specific projects in a lawmaker's home state or district. And in this toxic political environment, it's easy to make almost anything a member brings home look like a dirty deal. After the House health care vote on Sunday, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) issued a threat to Democrats who had switched their vote to yes.
"We will look at every appropriations bill, at every level, at every incidence, and we will outline it by district, and we will associate that with the buying of your vote," Coburn said.
Change The Public Believes In
So, as the two parties on Capitol Hill compete to see who can make the other appear more corrupt, the White House is looking for ways it can convince the public that Obama is changing the way Washington works.
The president wants to make a public database of all earmarks. He is also calling for new disclosure laws that would require big corporations to reveal their election expenditures, and lobbyists to divulge meetings they have with White House and Congressional officials. Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's communications director, said all these things are necessary because voters are paying close attention.
"The Nebraska Medicaid situation spread virally across the Internet, and pretty soon every American, even if they hadn't followed health care that closely, knew about it," Pfeiffer said. "And in a different day and age, that's the sort of thing — right or wrong — that would happen in Washington, and no one would have noticed."
He added, "Everyone in Washington needs to recognize that they are always performing on Broadway now. The American people are watching. And transparency has come — whether you like it or not — and so you need to embrace the engagement of the American people."
If Congress and the White House ignore that new engagement, they do so at their peril.