What a terrible time to draw a ruly crowd. Barack Obama needed an angry mob at his town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., this week.
He needed to show strength, resolve and fortitude in the face of confrontation, anger and vitriol.
Instead, Obama got a tea party. His health care town hall was filled with polite people who apparently felt that a president of the United States deserves a certain amount of respect.
What a disaster. Everybody was expecting what is happening at the town hall meetings being held by members of Congress this summer: yelling, screaming, the waving of arms and the gnashing of teeth.
Two Associated Press dispatches captured the difference. The first story carried the headline "Lawmakers face angry crowds on health care." It began: "Jeers and taunts drowned out Democrats calling for a health care overhaul at town halls Tuesday."
The second dispatch had the headline "To friendly crowd, Obama assails health care foes." It began: "Braced for a fight he never got, President Barack Obama went on the offensive in support of his health care plan Tuesday."
One story is exciting. The other is a yawn.
Members of Congress go out and get slapped around. They get to look tough. They get to look like they stand for something.
But Barack Obama shows up, and the crowd wimps out. You can’t look tough when your opponents want to pose for pictures with you.
The White House is losing the showmanship battle. The White House needs Obama as Daniel in the lions’ den. It needs the president to show spunk, spirit and resolve.
The White House also needs the opponents of health care reform to look as nutty and extreme as possible. Most Americans are repelled by extremism. Obama’s opponents want to call his reforms "Hitler-like"? Fine. That helps Obama.
I recently saw a Web greeting card that read, "Socialized medicine scares me a lot less than the people scared of socialized medicine." It showed a wild-looking guy carrying a club.
The networks are treating health care town halls the way they should be treated: as summer stock. They are theater. They are what Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo calls "right-wing performance art."
The White House needs confrontational crowds. Instead, it is getting "friendly" crowds.
Why are Obama crowds so polite? Some suggest it is respect both for Obama as an individual and for the office of the presidency. Others suggest that the presence of several dozen men and women carrying weapons and speaking into their sleeves has a chilling effect on disrespect.
I don’t know what it is. I do know it is bad news for the White House.
As White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said: "I think the public looks at screaming, swastikas, attacks. … It’s not a persuasive argument. If anything, it is the opposite."
Exactly. Which is why the White House needs it.
Are you really going to pay attention to a town hall that talks about cost containment, employer mandates and fee-for-service vs. capitation-based reimbursement? Or are you going to pay attention to a town hall that talks about how a death panel is going to put your grandmother on an ice floe with just a boning knife and a three-day supply of beef jerky?
"The president wants a rational discussion about health care legislation," says White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
I can’t imagine why.