Another crisis, another "summit" for Obama

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With the U.S. economy showing no sign of pulling out of a steep dive, President Barack Obama turns to overhauling the healthcare system on Thursday with his latest marathon White House talkfest.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the press during his meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (not pictured) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 3, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed

His healthcare “summit” follows a similar gathering last week in which he, members of the U.S. Congress and experts broke into panels and batted around ideas on how to control runaway deficit spending and other fiscal problems.

Calling a “summit” to debate an issue is a time-honored tradition at the White House and has already become standard fare for Obama, who is relying heavily on task forces, town hall meetings and a host of policy czars to address issues from Afghanistan to global warming.

Experts say summits, though they have a misleading name that suggests that agreements are being made, can be a useful tool in advancing the president’s goals and bringing allies on an issue together under one roof.

And they say the open nature of Obama’s conference is in contrast to the secrecy that surrounded Bill Clinton’s failed healthcare overhaul in 1993 and George W. Bush’s much-scorned energy policy review in 2001.

Obama pledged on the campaign trail to listen to various points of view in a search for consensus -- so far an elusive goal -- and his use of the “summit” format fits the bill.

“You shouldn’t underestimate the value of rewarding all your allies to create a sense that they’re all participating in creating a solution,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It’s a little hard to criticize Obama when he holds a summit that includes you in it,” she said.


This one, however, comes when Obama is facing some questions about the direction of his six-week-old administration given the persistent slide in the economy and the stock market, although his popularity remains high. A new Quinnipiac University poll put it at 59 percent.

Obama insists he can rebuild the U.S. economy, overhaul healthcare and rewrite energy policy all at the same time.

But some experts wonder why the president is not keeping his focus solely on the U.S. economy, particularly to regain the confidence of investors worried about the absence of a clear-cut plan on rescuing banks.

Democratic strategist Doug Schoen, who worked in the Clinton White House, said the market doldrums reflect investor concerns about Obama’s $3.55 trillion budget blueprint that foresees huge deficits, and the absence of a bank plan.

Obama may not have helped matters much on Tuesday by saying he was not looking at the “day-to-day gyrations of the stock market,” but rather the long-term ability of the United States and the world economy to regain its footing.

“What the markets are saying is ‘we don’t have confidence.’ And sooner or later the lack of confidence that has been fairly consistent in the markets will impact the political,” Schoen said.

The president is a great communicator, he said, but “we are in an environment where we need results.”

Obama says it is important to address major problems at the same time as they are all linked.

He argued in a speech to a joint session of Congress last week that revamping the healthcare system was essential to addressing rising healthcare costs and getting the U.S. economy back on track.

“It is one of the major reasons why small businesses close their doors and corporations ship jobs overseas. And it’s one of the largest and fastest-growing parts of our budget,” he said. “Given these facts, we can no longer afford to put health care reform on hold.”

Presidential scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution called Obama’s healthcare summit and others like it a “public relations exercise” to show that it is an important issue for him.

“The odds are that he is learning anything from them is very, very slight indeed,” he said.

Editing by David Storey