President Obama held a town hall meeting on health care Tuesday -- but even with opposition increasing to the reform he is proposing, he may have scored a tactical victory early on by taking a page out of the book of his immediate predecessors.
Sometimes the best lesson a president -- or even presidential candidate -- can learn is that the presidency and the Congress are different institutional creatures. That means that even when they're controlled by the same party, they have different responsibilities, styles and rhythms. It's often in the best interests of the president to remind his legislative counterparts of this.
Bill Clinton did just that after the Democrats lost the Congressional majority in 1994. Clinton adopted the "triangulation" approach -- distancing the White House from both the "extreme left" and the "extreme right." By taking advantage of key GOP mistakes like shutting down the government, Clinton recovered by 1996 and handily won re-election.
George W. Bush didn't even wait until he was elected.
Instead, he picked a good "enemy" with which to stake out his line -- Tom DeLay and a largely unpopular Republican Congress. He declared that House Republicans, by considering a cut in the Earned Income Tax Credit, were looking to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor."
Oooh! Not only was the line gratuitous, it actually sounded like something a Democrat would say about Republicans in general. Tom DeLay didn't take too kindly to the slap, but it made Bush look like a reasonable "compassionate conservative" and placed him somewhat "above the fray."
After continually deferring to Congress during the first six months of his presidency, through the stimulus package and a health care plan that was rapidly taking on water, Obama may have seen the limits of that strategy. As the August recess began, his popularity numbers had plunged to the 50 percent area.
Obama wisely didn't engage with his fellow Democrats directly. Instead, he took off for Guadalajara and a one day summit with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. On the return trip, White House Deputy Press Secretary delivered the scalpel to Pelosi and Hoyer:
"Well, I think there's actually a pretty long tradition of people shouting at politicians in America," Burton said. "The president thinks that if people want to come and have a spirited debate about health care, a real vigorous conversation about it, that's a part of the American tradition."
Obama didn't praise the protestors in his party -- but he didn't demonize them, either. Instead, the official White House response fell on the side of free speech and "spirited debate."
That was a perfect set-up for his town hall meeting in New Hampshire Tuesday. Needless to say, the security for a town hall with the president is a lot more stringent than for an everyday member of Congress. Besides, attendees are more respectful regardless. Obama had no fear of being shouted down.
Two important points were made though: The president came out strongly for the right of the people to be heard on the critical issue of the day -- and he showed he wasn't afraid to hear from them. That immediately takes the "chaotic health-care town halls" and pushes it to the back pages of the papers for a while. Obama distances himself from both the screaming, angry, Right and the censorious Left.