Can President Obama regain the upper hand in the healthcare debate?
That’s of course what he was trying to do this past week at town-hall meetings – one in New Hampshire and two in the Mountain West.
By and large, Mr. Obama commanded respect during the proceedings. No angry eruptions, no yelling at the president (although those opposed to his plan did get plenty of air time outside). The civil tone itself represented a shift in the debate.
But the fact remains that Americans, according to polls, are wary of changes to the healthcare system. And Obama has a long way to go before any reform legislation could land on his desk: It’s only Aug. 16, and Congress, which has been wrestling with several versions of healthcare reform, won’t even be back in session until after Labor Day (which is late this year, on Sept. 7). Plus, Obama and his family plan to take a vacation in late August.
“The debate continues, and we’ll see whether numbers move or change as a result of the continuing debate,” Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary, said recently.
To make its case for reform, the administration is reviving several tactics that helped Obama get elected last fall. The White House has created a “Reality Check” website, which attempts to explain the healthcare proposals being considered. With a similar explanatory aim, Obama’s senior adviser David Axelrod has produced an e-mail for viral distribution.
At Saturday’s town-hall meeting in Grand Junction, Colo., the president called for a grass-roots approach. “I need you to knock on doors. I need you to spread the word, because we are going to get this done this year,” he said.
But opponents of reform are using similar methods – and this time, they launched many efforts first.
Dick Armey, a former House leader for Republicans, is now chairman of FreedomWorks, a key group organizing opposition to the healthcare proposals. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Mr. Armey sought to distance himself from the most disruptive protesters: “I’m appalled by what I see, too, by some people.” He also said, “When FreedomWorks encourages people to go to town-hall meetings, we encourage them to go and make their points clearly, assertively, and with good manners.”
Polite or not, the protesters have put the White House in a reactionary mode. One issue in particular that the administration has been scrambling on: so-called “death panels.” Obama tried to debunk the idea at his Grand Junction event Saturday.
A point that the administration appears to ceding ground on is the “public option,” or a government-run insurance plan. This option is "not the essential element" of any healthcare overhaul, said Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services secretary, on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
In an op-ed in The New York Times on Sunday, the president acknowledged the difficult terrain ahead. “In the coming weeks, the cynics and the naysayers will continue to exploit fear and concerns for political gain,” he wrote. He also said, “But let’s make sure that we talk with one another, and not over one another.”
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