The Summit Spin: How the NYT Front Page Gets It Wrong and What Dems Do Next

I was pretty surprised to see this New York Times front page land at my doorstep this morning. Not only did it survive a massive blizzard to make its way to Queens, but the lead photograph and accompanying headline just did not fit with the health-care-summit that I watched yesterday.

First, and foremost, that picture: Joe and Barack looking so darn dismal. Granted, they did have to sit through an incredibly dull seven-hour meeting, but in general I thought Obama came across pretty well, while Biden was hardly a key player. Obama was concise, clear, and compelling. “What Obama did do was paint himself—for anyone who was watching—as someone genuinely interested in compromise and genuinely interested in engaging with his Republican colleagues,” Chris Cillizza writes over at the Daily Fix. The Daily Beast identifies Obama as “the best Democrat on display.” A photograph that would better represent the summit would be one of Obama engaging with a Republican, perhaps Lamar Alexander or John McCain, not this image of him looking fed up. Give the Republicans some credit for challenging the president and engaging him, not boring him to death.

The headline—Health Meeting Fails to Bridge Partisan Rift—was indeed accurate. But it strikes me as an inappropriate characterization of the summit because I don’t think any serious observers or participants in the summit went in expecting to solve the partisan rift in six hours. The White House didn’t; their invitation indicates that they were “looking forward to a constructive debate." We can debate whether or not that happened—across the blogosphere, we’re doing just that—but I don’t know that it's appropriate to define the summit by its failure to overcome sweeping ideological divides.

Either way though, this is the image that arrived on doorsteps all across the country, and it makes me think that Democrats have some serious spinning to do. The storyline that they want to have on the front page is on A26, in the lead editorial “After the Summit.” “The main lesson to draw from Thursday’s health care forum is that differences between Democrats and Republicans are too profound to be bridge,” writes the Times editorial board. “That means it is up to the Democrats to fix the country’s dysfunctional and hugely costly health system.”

There are straight news versions of this over at the Associated Press (Bottom line on health care summit: Dems push ahead) and The Washington Post (At health-care summit, Obama tells Republicans he's eager to move ahead). This is how the Democrats want to be perceived: confident, calm, and moving forward. Creating that perception, however, generally requires the Democrats to actually be confident, calm, and moving forward. Whether they can, postsummit, pull that off and warrant such coverage remains the real question.