Friday, August 14, 2009

Dr. Obama on the offensive

President Obama landed in Montana today for a town hall meeting on health-care reform. But relax: this town hall wasn’t an occasion to call out the state militia or screen everybody for weapons at the door.

The president came to the friendly territory of Big Sky Country to discuss the loaded topic, and began the process of taking back the debate over health insurance from the screamers and yahoos loose at other town halls, where various Democrats from Congress were all but assaulted over the issue.

Montana (whose Sen. Max Baucus is one of the president’s water carriers on health-care reform, on the Senate Finance Committee) went for Obama in the 2009 election. The 1,300 or so supporters who turned up today at an aircraft hangar in Belgrade, Mont., weren’t screened or vetted. They’re everyday people.

One of their number, cancer survivor Katie Gibson, symbolized the catch-22 of people repeatedly denied health coverage because of her pre-existing condition.

These Big Sky souls were able surrogates for average Americans facing a health-care crisis of unprecedented scope. The numbers help put things into perspective: there were about 1,300 people at today’s event. About ten times that number — an estimated 14,000 Americans — lose their health insurance coverage every day. Obama made the point tellingly: for them, the dreaded C word isn’t necessarily “cancer.” It might well be the word “cancellation.”

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After Gibson’s introduction, President Obama tapped his rhetorical resources, the way he did during the campaign, and broke the issue down for average citizens.

“Katie’s story is the kind of story that I’ve read in letters all throughout the campaign and every day when I’m president. I hear about them in town halls all across America, the stories of hard-working people who are doing the right thing. They’re acting responsibility, only to find out that they’re penalized because others aren’t doing the right thing, because others aren’t acting responsibly. …”

“We’re no different from Katie and other ordinary Americans, no different from anybody else,” the president said. Obama made plain his objection to the current system. “It’s wrong … and we are going to fix it when we pass health insurance reform this year.”

Obama took a well-needed shot at some of the news coverage that’s followed the brawling at other town hall events. Referencing his own town hall in Portsmouth, N.H., on Tuesday, the president said the Portsmouth town hall (and by inference the one in Belgrade) was symbolic of what was needed: “people who are coming together and having a civil, honest, often difficult conversation about how we can improve the system. That’s how democracy’s supposed to work.

“I was glad that people were not there to shout; they were there to listen," he said. "That reflects America a lot more than what we've seen covered on television the last few days."

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Obama’s homeboy homespun rhetorical flourishes were on display today, but his greatest effectiveness may have happened when he got up close and personal in the discussion.

It’s the sense of personal experience with the system he’s seeking to overhaul that gives Barack Obama more than the usual presidential leverage, makes the podium he speaks behind more than a conventional bully pulpit.

His own personal history is his secret weapon. In the health-care debate, Barack Obama has skin in the game.

The story of the death of his mother, Anne Dunham, from ovarian and uterine cancer in 1995 after battles with insurers — and the more recent passing, weeks after the November election, of Madelyn Dunham, his grandmother and the woman who raised him in his mother’s stead — give Obama’s call for health reform a personal urgency that’s easily transferrable to Americans of all economic stripes.

“I’ll never forget my own mother as she fought cancer in her final months, having to worry about whether the insurance company would refuse to pay for her treatment. The insurance company was arguing that she should have known that she had cancer when she took her new job, even though it hadn’t been diagnosed yet. If it could happen to her, it could happen to any one of us.

“It’s wrong. And when we pass health insurance reform, we’re going to put a stop to it once and for all. …”

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Today at an aircraft hangar in Montana, President Obama returned fire against the climate of intolerance that’s lately taken the high ground in the health-care debate. As only he can, Obama made the theoretical, procedural aspects of health care reform a dilemma with a human face. He spoke in recognition of how, for all of us, in all of us, no matter how healthy we are today, there is the genetic chronicle of a death or disability foretold.

Att some time in our lives, our cells will betray us; our delicate physical balance will go awry; we will be subject to a cascade of physiological events we can neither predict nor prevent.

“We are closer to achieving health insurance reform than we’ve ever been in history,” President Obama said, calling for a change in the debate over health care, one that seeks change from insurers and doctors, one that finally recognizes the power and inescapability of that pre-existing condition called life.
Image credits: Obama: Image from Aug. 14 pool feed. Anne Dunham: Mercer Island (WA) High School yearbook photo.

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