Dee Dee Myers: Obama Must Define Victory

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Dee Dee Myers, a former Clinton administration spokeswoman i

Dee Dee Myers, a former Clinton administration spokeswoman, speaks during a live taping of Meet the Press at NBC on March 1 in Washington, D.C. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet The Press hide caption

itoggle caption Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet The Press
Dee Dee Myers, a former Clinton administration spokeswoman

Dee Dee Myers, a former Clinton administration spokeswoman, speaks during a live taping of Meet the Press at NBC on March 1 in Washington, D.C.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet The Press

President Obama needs to give clearer direction to Congress on legislation to overhaul health care when he addresses a joint session Wednesday night, says Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary under President Clinton.

"Another thing he'll need to do to a certain degree is define what's victory, you know, which may be defining down from his original goals," says Myers, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

Myers tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that while President Obama's team learned from the frustrations of the Clinton administration in trying to remake the health care system, "they overlearned some lessons, which is, you know, sort of predictable."

"I think the one thing that Congress has missed is a more forceful leadership from the president — a clearer sense of what he will accept and what he will not accept," she says. "And I think that's what people are looking forward to hearing from him [Wednesday night]."

When it comes to health care, it's been a rough summer for the White House. The president is trying to regain control of the debate with his address. So how did Obama get to this point?

"The thing that happened was expectations met the complexity that is health care," Myers says. "It has happened to every president who has tried to take on health care for 50 years. Keeping control of this massive issue is a really difficult task. And so, the biggest thing that's happened is just bumping up against the reality."

A transcript of the interview follows:

Inskeep: Although those are things that were known to this administration and, of course, earlier in the year there were many stories about how they learned from the frustrations of the Clinton administration.

Myers: Right, and they overlearned some lessons, which is, you know, sort of predictable. The Clintons obviously started out by trying to write a health care bill. It was a 1,300-page monstrosity — took months to do, was done somewhat in secret, so without a lot of feedback from members of Congress or other interest groups, and obviously failed — for a lot of reasons, including the process. President Obama and his team came in saying, 'We're not going to do that. We're going to do the opposite. We're going to let Congress write this bill. It has to be done kind of in the give-and-take of the legislative process.' And so they did that. The downside to that is that you have all these details out there swirling around, you have all these different members of Congress with all kinds of different interests and different districts and different constituencies that they have to appeal to. And, you know, it's the sausage-making.

Have congressional leaders on this issue not done a very good job for the president — he's given them the ball and they haven't gotten very far with it?

Well, I think — look, three House committees have passed bills, and the Senate Finance Committee is close to passing something. That's behind the schedule the president had hoped for, but it's actually a lot more progress than you would discern by sometimes listening to media accounts. I think the one thing that Congress has missed is a more forceful leadership from the president — a clearer sense of what he will accept and what he will not accept. And I think that's what people are looking forward to hearing from him [Wednesday night].

Well, the president has been out for months talking about this. What has he not been saying?

He's not been saying what he'll accept and not accept and, of course, the best example of that is this debate about the public option: Should there be a publicly run, a government-run, insurance plan to compete with private plans, and will the president accept a final bill that doesn't include that? Some members of the House say it has to be in there or they won't vote for it. Members of the Senate say if it's in there, we won't vote for it, particularly a lot of Republicans. For them, it's a deal-breaker — most of them will never vote for this bill anyway. But that's one example of a case where a lot of members are saying, 'Hey, if the president's going to accept a bill without a public option, I want to know that now.'

Well, does the president's rhetoric there reflect part of his dilemma in that his party is divided and he can't necessarily put a marker down that all of his own party can get behind?

Right, and that is exactly the dilemma for him. And so he's allowed Congress to work through this process. But at some point, as the president himself said over the weekend, you have to stop the debate, make a decision and act, and I think we're getting very close to that point. Not that the president is going to lay out all the details of a bill in his speech, but that he has to start to narrow down the set of options, he has to start to give Congress some clearer direction. It's easier to defend a bill when you know what's in it.

I want to talk about that principle. Does that suggest that the whole process of going for a massive health care change — and you said the bill was 1,300 pages back in the 1990s, they've gotten it down to 1,000 or something now —

Yeah, yeah, so it's streamlined.

But is there a point at which it doesn't make sense to try a gigantic, comprehensive reform like this?

There's certainly a lot of people who believe that — that a more incremental approach to reform is more effective and less likely to be tripped up by these details that get buried in a thousand-page bill. The president believes that the issue is so complex that you do need to do it all at once, that, you know, you can't pull a thread here without having some kind of reaction over there. And, by the way, even with a thousand-page bill, even as comprehensive as the president and Democrats in Congress have set out to make this, it will be less than the president started trying to achieve — it will be less than their initial goal — because of that process, because there are so many things to object to. And so, the president — another thing he'll need to do to a certain degree is define what's victory, you know, which may be defining down from his original goals.

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