The vultures (including me) showed up for Robert Gibbs’s briefing today as voters in Massachusetts went to the polls to cast their vote for U.S. Senate. The operating assumption, which Gibbs did not dispute, was that Democrat Martha Coakley would lose the seat—held by the late Ted Kennedy since 1962—to a Republican nonentity named Scott Brown, a military lawyer and state senator whose main claim to fame until this month was that he had, decades ago, posed in the almost-totally-nude for Cosmopolitan magazine.
Gibbs's mood was businesslike but a little somber and, while he deflected questions about the election, he did quietly try out a few lines of excuse, explanation, and apology. He will, if necessary, perform the Full Monty (so to speak) at tomorrow’s briefing.
In the meantime, here is what I glean about the spin lines:
- Massachusetts voters were as angry and upset as everyone else (other than the big bankers) about the continued weakness of the economy. That problem began in 2007; it is a huge, close to intractable problem that President Obama is just as upset about as everyone else; that he is working hard to solve it; and that is not his fault to begin with, so the vote in the Bay State can’t be viewed as a personal repudiation of him.
- The White House didn’t do as good a job as it should have communicating what is good about the health-care bills that have been considered on the Hill. “I’d be the first to admit that we think there are more benefits than people see and feel,” said Gibbs. To the extent that is a “failing,” he said, “it is a failing that I and others take responsibility for up to an including the president.”
- The results in Massachusetts will NOT deter the president from continuing to press as hard as possible for final passage of a health-care bill
- Whatever the results, Obama will press ahead on what will be the main theme of the State of the Union on Jan. 27: the economy and jobs. Left unasked (and unanswered) was the question of whether, knowing what we now know, that it was wise to spend a year and an election’s worth of political capital on…health care.
- Change is not easy—not as easy, Obama has discovered, as it perhaps seemed during campaign rallies in 2008. “I think he learned that change is hard,” said Gibbs, “that change is never easy, that change takes time, and that change has to go through Congress."
- The correlative: if the health-care bill is not popular, if people don’t sense as much change (on the economy or anything else) as they had hoped for, it’s Congress’s fault.
- He is going to press for a health-care bill even if polls say it is unpopular, because he is a president who is willing to do unpopular things for the good of the country—such as bailing out the big banks and the auto companies.
- He is “surprised and frustrated” about the trends in Massachusetts, and there may be some people to blame—presumably people in Massachusetts, but (and I’m guessing here) even at the White House.