Barack Obama has long seemed preoccupied with his presidency's dissection by cable TV talk show hosts. With his healthcare summit, he effectively became one.
Welcome to the presidential no-spin zone.
Obama put together a production of government in the television age, a health care reality show. He used his platform to direct discussion on the specifics of reform, cut off opponent posturing and make points of his own.
Yet he was only a host — not a producer — and television networks eager to cover it at first lost interest as time went on.
By 2:30 p.m., at the opening of the session's second half, Fox News Channel had shifted to its studio show (occasionally showing a mute picture of the summit on a portion of its screen) and CNN's Wolf Blitzer was reporting on poll results. Both covered it fitfully in the afternoon. MSNBC moved on to the Finland-Sweden ice hockey game from the Olympics. PBS aired "Between the Lions."
Online streaming was the best option for people who wanted to watch the session uninterrupted.
As the program's host, Obama set an agenda and said he wanted to make clear where Democrats and Republicans agree and isolate the issues where there are differences. Democrats seemed intent on showing that, in actual policy proposals, "we may be closer here than we really think," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
Obama struggled to get the politicians away from finger-pointing and toward any serious negotiations.
Like any opinionated cable host, Obama sometimes dealt sharply with those who angered him. One eye-opening exchange came when his 2008 election opponent, John McCain, criticized dealmaking that bloated the current healthcare bill.
"We're not campaigning anymore," Obama told McCain. "The election is over."
It became the most-remembered sound bite of the day, as it was featured prominently on ABC and NBC's evening newscasts. On television screens, it harkened back to the presidential debates with cable news showing split screens of the two men. The exchange lit up the blogs.
"Genius!" wrote one Facebook member, Bruce Stevenson.
Tim McKay had a different view on Facebook: "I'm not John McCain fan, but the way President Obama just treated him at the health care summit was in my opinion, about as classless and unprofessional as they come."
McCain later appeared on Fox News with Sean Hannity to say he thought Obama looked "very, very uncomfortable" in responding to his criticism.
"The president was uncomfortable because he knows it was wrong," McCain said. "It's not the way that he promised."
The president also criticized Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House's No. 2 Republican, for piling a copy of the Senate bill on his desk as a prop to make the point that changes should be simplified.
"Those are the kind of political things we do that prevent us from actually having a conversation," he said.
He cut off Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell after the Kentucky senator checked his watch to note Democrats had more speaking time.
"There's an imbalance in the opening statements because I'm the president," Obama said.
On ABC's "World News," Diane Sawyer called the summit "a landmark event — a televised political duel." The network's top political correspondent, George Stephanopoulos, said both sides can claim victories: Obama because he showed genuine interest in bipartisanship, and the Republicans because they showed they have some concrete ideas on the topic.
On NBC's "Nightly News," Savannah Guthrie said that neither side expected the summit to change everything.
"The question is, did it change anything?" she said.
Writing with an outsider's view, the Times of London wrote that "watching American politicians argue about health care can be seriously damaging to your health. Symptoms include migraines, extreme fatigue and sudden violent urges."
Cable TV producers have only a limited attention span, and the summit was barely an hour old before MSNBC was muting the sound and interviewing political strategists and talk show hosts about what they were seeing. In other words, they silenced the unusual sight of the nation's leaders in the same room publicly talking about a huge issue so they could present what their pundits were saying about them.
Fox spent the most time presenting uninterrupted coverage before the lunch break. Afterward, the network cut back sharply following it after reporting that its online poll found 90 percent of respondents saying the event was just "political theater."
"I don't think a single mind was changed by watching this," said Fox Sunday host Chris Wallace.
How quickly did Obama's summit become simply grist for the cable talk mill? During one break, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Roland Martin how he would score the summit if it were part of the Olympics.
"I wouldn't score it," Martin replied. "That's part of the problem. The important thing is that they're talking."
Former Alaskan governor and current Fox News contributor Sarah Palin told Hannity on Fox News that it was a victory for Republicans in expressing their healthcare ideas to a wide audience.
"It was painful to sit there and watch this, but very productive and helpful ... for Americans to see what had been discussed all along, now out in the open," said Palin, speaking live via satellite from a snowy Alaska.
Bill O'Reilly said he thought the summit was "fair and balanced" and that Obama was a good moderator. But O'Reilly said the long broadcast was "boring as sand" and that it likely didn't change anyone's mind, viewers and politicians alike.
On MSNBC, Chris Matthews said it "bugged me a little" that Obama, who was addressed as "Mr. President," called lawmakers by their first names. But he theorized that Obama's "lack of protocol" may have showed Congress "who's boss."
The day's host had his own review, when asked how things were going while he walked from the Blair House to the White House during the lunch break.
"I don't know if it's interesting to watch on TV," Obama said, "but it's interesting being a part of it."
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