White House Tries To Restore Public Trust As much as the substance of the health care bill, it was the sweetheart deals and closed-door meetings surrounding it that helped disillusion the public. Now President Obama — who campaigned on the promise of transparency — must remind the public why it voted for him in the first place.
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White House Tries To Restore Public Trust

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White House Tries To Restore Public Trust

White House Tries To Restore Public Trust

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One charge that Sarah Palin and the Republicans have leveled against the health care overhaul is that Democrats built it with backroom deals. The problem for Democrats is that there's truth to the charge, and the argument has clearly hit a sore spot with some Americans.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports now on how the president and Congress plan to restore their trust.

MARA LIASSON: The White House is rightfully savoring its victory on health care, but it also understands the political damage the president suffered because of the way the bill was written and passed. As the president explained in January on ABC, the process contradicted one of his signature campaign promises.

President BARACK OBAMA: Part of what I'd campaigned on was changing how Washington works, opening up transparency. And I think it is, you know, I think the health care debate, as it unfolded, legitimately raised concerns not just among my opponents but also among supporters that we just don't know what's going on. And it's an ugly process and it looks like there are a bunch of back-room deals.

LIASSON: This week, many of those backroom deals were painfully extracted from the bill. They included the infamous Cornhusker Kickback that gave Nebraska's Ben Nelson a special deal on Medicaid. And Gator-aid, a special deal Bill Nelson got for his Florida seniors. Back in December, the Senate didn't just add these deals to the bill. The Democratic Leader Harry Reid seemed completely out of touch with public anger when he defended them.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; House Majority Leader): That's what legislation is all about. There's 100 senators here, and I don't know if there's a senator that doesn't have something in this bill that was important to them. And if they don't have something in it important to them, then it doesn't speak well of them.

LIASSON: All those backroom deals hurt the Obama brand, and the president knew it. He had famously promised to hold health care negotiations live on C-SPAN. That's why when the bill was teetering on the edge of defeat, he suggested two televised health care meetings with Republicans.

Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta says going forward, the president should do that again.

Mr. JOHN PODESTA (Former Chief of Staff, White House): I think there's any question that the two circumstances - his going to the Republican Caucus plus the Health Care Summit - were advantageous to the president. I think the more he does that, the more he opens up the process of government, I think he'll be benefitting from that.

LIASSON: Does that mean as the White House moves on to other issues, there will be more televised summits? They wouldn't mind, say White House officials.

Congress, too, is trying to respond to public anger about all that ugly legislative sausage-making. Over the course of the health care debate, Congress's approval rating dropped to 17 percent, a historic low. In a new Pew Research Center poll, corrupt was one of the two most commonly used adjectives to describe Congress.

Earlier this month, in an effort to address this fury, House Democrats announced they will ban all earmarks for corporations. Then the Republicans one-upped them

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Minority Leader): The House Republican Conference has concluded a special meeting, where the decision of the members was to ban all earmarks for the balance of this year.

LIASSON: That's House Minority Leader John Boehner.

Rep. BOEHNER: The American people see this earmark process as an example of a broken Washington. And I think what the American people want to see is a process that does have all the transparency and accountability it ought to have.

LIASSON: Earmarks, of course, are those special appropriations for specific projects in a lawmaker's home state or district. And in this toxic political environment, it's easy to make almost anything a member brings home look like a dirty deal. After the House health care vote on Sunday, Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma issued this threat to Democrats who had switched their vote to yes.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): We will look at every appropriations bill at every level, at every instance, and we will outline it by district, and we will associate that with the buying of your vote.

LIASSON: So, as the two parties on Capitol Hill compete to see who can make the other appear more corrupt, the White House is looking for ways it can convince the public that Mr. Obama is changing the way Washington works.

The president wants to make a public database of all earmarks and he's calling for new laws to disclose big corporate expenditures on elections, and all meetings between lobbyists and officials in both the White House and Congress.

Dan Pfeiffer, President Obama's communications director, says all these things are necessary because voters are paying close attention.

Mr. DAN PFEIFFER (Communications Director, White House): The Nebraska Medicaid situation spread virally through the Internet. And pretty soon every American, even if they hadn't followed health care that closely, knew about it. And in a different day and age, that's the sort of thing, right or wrong, that would happen in Washington and no one would have noticed.

Everyone in Washington needs to recognize that they're always performing on Broadway now. The American people are always watching. And transparency has come whether you like it or not, and so you need to sort of embrace the engagement of the American people.

LIASSON: And if Congress and the White House ignore that new engagement, they do so at their peril.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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