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Obama scripts town-hall meeting on health care. What would Bush say?

July 2, 2009 |  9:14 am

Remember when public opinion turned so dramatically against the Iraq war that the White House only let invited guests attend George W. Bush's out-of-town speeches?

Well it seems like the same thing might be happening to President Obama's healthcare proposal.

As the Ticket reported yesterday, Obama answered questions at a town hall at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va., about protecting the uninsured, giving consumers a public option and converting medical records from paper to digital files. The White House portrayed the town-hall meeting as one in a series of public outreach events, a way for the president to keep his finger on the pulse of public opinion, and in turn to sway Americans on the complex and contentious issue.

This morning, the Washington Post is reporting that "of the seven questions the president answered, four were selected by his staff from videos submitted to the White House Web site or from those responding to a request for 'tweets.' " And the three audience members he called on randomly? The Post says "all turned out to be members of groups with close ties to his administration: the Service Employees International Union, Health Care for America Now, and Organizing for America, which is a part of the Democratic National Committee."

None of this would surprise any good White House advance staffer. Better to control the crowd, screen the questions, anticipate the topics. And, to be fair, a college campus in a Democratic county might be expected to produce friendly questioners.

The problem is that Obama himself made an issue of transparency, promising an administration that allowed the public to see what its government was doing. In fact on Jan. 22, his first full day in office, Obama issued a series of executive orders instructing government agencies to open their files, saying, "Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

So, naturally, reporters jumped on the apparent discrepancy, led by veteran Helen Thomas, a thorn in the side to many a presidential administration, and CBS' Chip Reid. See what you think.


White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, deflecting the criticism, protested that the White House was not trying to manage the questions. Thomas reminded him that the Obama administration, unlike its predecessors, calls reporters the night before a press conference to tell them they will be called on, a new way of managing the topics.

Waving off the criticism and arguing that the healthcare forum would be expansive, Gibbs asked the reporters how they could make the case that the White House is muffling dissent when "you haven't heard the questions."

"It doesn't matter. It's the process," Reid argued. "Even if there's a tough question, it's a question coming from somebody who was invited or who was screened or the question was screened."

With the president's popularity dropping from his stratospheric inaugural highs -- the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll this week found that Americans are evenly split, 48 to 48%, on how Obama is handling the deficit -- the White House may be just trying to improve his standing by controlling the optics.

Saving his healthcare plan might prove more difficult.

-- Johanna Neuman

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