There comes a time, in the tenure of every presidential press secretary, when it becomes necessary to perform the thankless task of slinging bull for the boss.
And yesterday afternoon, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs certainly stunk up the White House press room.
It all started when a reporter asked him a direct question about the impending final negotiations on health care reform: "C-SPAN television is requesting leaders in Congress to open up the debate to their cameras, and I know this is something that the President talked about on the campaign trail. Is this something that he supports, will be pushing for?"
Uh oh. Gibbs had a big problem. House and Senate Democrats apparently intend to hash out their differences on health care reform behind closed doors, away from the C-SPAN cameras, and President Obama seems fine with that. Yet it was candidate Obama who promised, several times, to eschew secrecy and govern in the open.
In January 2008, candidate Obama said he intended to negotiate health care reform in public: ""That's what I will do, in bringing all parties together, not negotiating behind closed doors, but bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are, because part of what we have to do is enlist the American people in this process." Eight months later, he expanded the pledge: "I'm going to have all the negotiations around a big table. We'll have doctors and nurses and hospital administrators. Insurance companies, drug companies - they'll get a seat at the table, they just won't be able to buy every chair. But what we will do is, we'll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, 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. And so, that approach, I think is what is going to allow people to stay involved in this process."
Obama never specifically stated that final-stage congressional health care negotiations should be broadcast on C-SPAN, but clearly that was the spirit of what he said - as C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb is now reminding the congressional Democrats. In a letter that circulated yesterday, Lamb urged House and Senate leaders to "open all important negotiations, including any conference committee meetings, to electronic media coverage," because, after all, President Obama has "talked about the value of transparent discussions on reforming the nation's health care system."
So, here was Gibbs, preparing to answer the question about whether Obama would live up to his pledge and side with the C-SPAN request. Elsewhere in Washington, the Republicans were already chortling. They had sent out an email entitled, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," and penned this line of mockery: "Welcome to the new transparent era of hope and change. Please leave your cameras, microphones, notepads, tweets, blog posts, and all other journalistic tools at the door." (It's a bit rich to see the congressional Republicans pose as the defenders of journalism, given all the secret sessions they conducted back when they had the power, and given the Bush White House track record on energy policy secrecy, but hey. Obama did make a promise, and it's fair game to poke him on that.)
Anyway, here's how Gibbs answered the question: "I have not seen that (C-SPAN) letter. I know the president is going to begin some discussions later today on health care in order to try to iron out the differences that remain between the House and the Senate bill and try to get something hopefully to his desk quite quickly."
In other words, he never said whether Obama would live up to his pledge. Which was code for saying that he won't. But the fun was just beginning.
Later in the press briefing, another reporter followed up: "Okay, just lastly, why can't you answer the C-SPAN question - "
Gibbs: "I did."
Reporter: "Well, you didn't, because you said - "
Gibbs: "I said I hadn't seen the letter, which I haven't - "
Reporter: "Why do you need to see a letter? I mean, this is something the president said during the campaign, and he talked about he wants everything open on C-SPAN - "
Gibbs: "Dan asked me about the letter, and I haven't read the letter."
Reporter: "Well, I'll just ask you about having it on C-SPAN."
Gibbs: "I answered Dan's question, and I answered this before we left for the break, Keith. The president's number-one priority is getting the differences worked out, getting a bill to the House and the Senate. We've filled your newspaper and many others with the back-and-forth and the details of what's in these bills. I don't want to keep that from continuing to happen. I don't think there's anybody that would say that we haven't had a thorough, robust, now spanning two calendar years' debate on health care."
Gibbs, in translation: Obama won't push for C-SPAN coverage of the most critical stage of the health care reform process.
The reporter then asked whether Obama regretted making his campaign promise. Gibbs replied, "No."
Obama's political dilemma is obvious. If the reigning Democrats negotiate the final health reform package via the traditional conference committee, they would give the naysaying Republicans a host of new opportunities for obstruction (all of it magnified by C-SPAN's cameras). The second option is to expedite the process by freezing out the Republicans (who really have no interest in negotiating anything), reconciling the House and Senate bills in secret, and taking the hit on the breached promise of transparency. Given the Democrats' clear desire to finish health reform and pivot to the jobs issue, the second option wins.
The obvious lesson here is that politicians should refrain from making elaborate promises that are hard to keep. Fortunately for them, underlings like Robert Gibbs will always be ready and willing to fall on their swords.