Obama: Health Debate 'Actually Was on C-SPAN’

Sunday, 31 Jan 2010 08:32 AM

By Theodore Kettle

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Visiting the House Republicans’ gathering on Friday, President Barack Obama claimed that he had not broken his oft-repeated campaign promise to have healthcare negotiations broadcast live on C-SPAN – because according to the president, C-SPAN did actually broadcast them.

Freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told the president that he and many Americans were disappointed that “when you stood up before the American people multiple times and said you would broadcast the healthcare debates on C-SPAN, you didn’t.”

Obama answered Chaffetz by saying, “Look, the truth of the matter is that if you look at the healthcare process, just over the course of the year, overwhelmingly the majority of it actually was on C-SPAN, because it was taking place in congressional hearings in which you guys were participating. I mean, how many committees were there that helped to shape this bill? Countless hearings took place.”

The president seemed to be saying that when he promised during the presidential campaign that health reform “negotiations” would be televised on C-SPAN, what he really meant was “congressional hearings.”

The trouble with that claim is that congressional hearings have been televised by C-SPAN for many years. What force does a campaign promise have if the promise is for something that’s already there?

Obama made it clear repeatedly that what he was promising in opening the process governing the formulation of healthcare legislation was something new – letting the public in on what would usually be private negotiations, like the House-Senate conference that produces a final bill for passage. His statements before becoming president indicate he was not referring to congressional hearings, which already are public (except for those on classified national security matters).

This comes through most clearly in his televised appearance with New Hampshire’s Keene Sentinel newspaper on Nov. 27, 2007. “Drug and insurance companies will have a seat at the table; they just won’t be able to buy every single chair,” Obama said. “And we will have a public process for forming this plan. It’ll be televised on C-SPAN … it will be transparent and accountable to the American people.” And the then-senator said, “one of my jobs as the president will be to guide this process so that it’s an honest process.”

Promising “a public process” simply could not have been a reference to the already-public congressional hearings.

The C-SPAN promise was repeatedly used as a sure-fire applause line at campaign rallies. “We’ll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN,” he told a Virginia town hall gathering on Aug. 28, 2008, “so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies.”

In an Ohio town hall on March 1, 2008, he promised, “But here’s the thing: we’re gonna do all these negotiations on C-SPAN. So the American people will be able to watch these negotiations.”

Why would crowds have cheered a candidate who promised that the already-televised Senate and House committee hearings would be televised?

Later in his answer to Chaffetz on Friday, the president seemed to concede fault. “I take responsibility for not having structured it in a way where it was all taking place in one place that could be filmed,” he said. “How to do that logistically would not have been as easy as it sounds, because you’re shuttling back and forth between the House, the Senate, different offices, etc., different legislators. But I think it’s a legitimate criticism, so on that one I take responsibility.”

As a senator, Obama knew what the logistics would be when he was again and again promising to let C-SPAN televise health reform negotiations. He knew there would have to be “shuttling back and forth between the House, the Senate, different offices, etc., different legislators.” Yet he pledged it would happen, and that it would be “one of my jobs as the president” to make sure it would happen.

Now he is telling opposition lawmakers they shouldn’t complain that it didn’t happen because “overwhelmingly the majority of it actually was on C-SPAN, because it was taking place in congressional hearings.”

The president also seemed to take blame during his ABC News interview with Diane Sawyer early last week, calling it “a legitimate mistake” and saying “it's my responsibility … to own up to the fact that the process didn’t run the way I ideally would like it to and that we have to move forward in a way that recaptures that sense of opening things up more.”

Will this “C-SPAN Shuffle” be for Obama what “the meaning of ‘is’” was for President Bill Clinton, and what the Eastern Europe gaffe was for President Gerald Ford?

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