Gardiner Harris has a long front-page piece in the New York Times today about friction between the FDA and the White House over just how strict the FDA’s rules should be. With one exception (Kathleeen Sebelius’s overrule of the FDA’s decision to make the Plan B emergency contraceptive available over the counter) the conflicts actually struck me as fairly minor. One was a labeling issue, another seems to have been little more than a request for information, one is still up in the air, and another was a reaction to a pretty outrageous case of price gouging. This is the stuff of fairly routine bureaucratic scuffling.
But even if there’s maybe a little less here than meets the eye, it’s interesting to read the genesis of the bickering:
A decision that had nothing to do with the F.D.A. proved the turning point in the agency’s relationship with the White House. In the midst of the bitter 2009 battle to pass a law to provide health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans, the United States Preventive Services Task Force announced in November that most women should not get routine mammograms until age 50 because the risks of the X-ray screens and surgical biopsies that often follow outweighed the benefits in younger women.
Although the task force did not consider cost in its analysis, Republicans charged that its recommendation was the start of health care rationing, an accusation given prominent play on Fox News. “That scared the bejesus out of everybody,” a top F.D.A. official said.
….A provision of the new law required chain restaurants and “similar retail food establishments” to post calorie counts on menus….The F.D.A.’s first draft of the guidelines — approved by the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House — stated that movie theaters, lunch wagons, trains and airlines would be included. A report about the proposal in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 31, 2010, nevertheless caught the White House by surprise.
“This was the era of Glenn Beck, and the White House was terrified that Beck would get up and say this is all part of the nanny state,” a senior F.D.A. official said. Beth Martino, the F.D.A.’s chief spokeswoman, was instructed to write a blog post reversing the agency’s draft guidance even before the comment period closed and did so on Sept. 8.
Consumer advocates were outraged.
If this is true, Fox News has really gotten inside the Obama administration’s head. On big issues, Obama seems generally willing to take the long view and just accept whatever attacks he’s going to get. But at the same time, it sounds like the White House is almost hypersensitive to the potential for smaller issues to balloon into gigantic tea party press frenzies. And on those issues, the game isn’t worth the candle. They aren’t willing to take weeks or months of demagoguery on Fox over the question of whether movie theaters have to tell us just how bad their popcorn is. (Pretty bad!)
So Fox News is clearly inside the White House’s OODA loop in a pretty systematic way these days. Congratulations, guys.