Obama's Labor Day rallying cry: 'Time to act' on healthcare

In a speech at an AFL-CIO picnic Monday, he signaled a harder line toward healthcare reform. But that might not be the full story.

Charles Dharapak / AP
President Barack Obama finishes greeting the audience prior to speaking at the AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic at Coney Island in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Monday.

Like Clark Kent stepping into a phone booth, President Obama discarded his mild-mannered alter ego on a Cincinnati stage Monday in an attempt to rally his Democratic base and turn the tide running against healthcare reform.

Gone was the professor-president who took care to explain the complexities of healthcare in such painstaking detail during recent months. In his place was the president-preacher, quite literally before his choir – at least politically speaking – a Labor Day picnic of the AFL-CIO.

It was a glimpse of the president that many Democrats had hoped they had elected in November – a forceful figure using his considerable rhetorical repertory and a clear political mandate to grasp the presidency in his fist.

Instead, many have grown disillusioned by a president who has – in their eyes – caved in to the right far too often, whether on gay rights, a government-run option in healthcare reform, or cutting loose “green jobs” adviser and liberal up-and-comer Van Jones under pressure from Republicans and Fox News commentator Glenn Beck.

In rolled up shirt sleeves and conspicuously without a tie, Obama was in campaign mode once more, seeking to regain some of that lost ground.

“Every debate at some point comes to an end,” he said in reference to the weeks of debate that have left healthcare reform in political limbo. “At some point it’s time to act. Ohio, it’s time to act.”

Obama would hope to carry the enthusiasm of Monday’s picnic onto the dais of Congress, where he will address a joint session Wednesday night.

Yet the Obama of compromise does not appear to be forgotten entirely.

On Sunday morning’s “Meet the Press” – a forum much more likely to give insight into the mechanics of Washington dealmaking than a union rally – one of the president’s senior advisers offered much more tepid words.

While Obama thinks the option of a government-run program to compete with private healthcare insurers is “a good tool,” Axelrod said, “it shouldn't define the whole healthcare debate, however.”

Democrats in the House are inclined to disagree. Healthcare reform without the option of a government-run program is hardly worth doing – to the point that some say they won’t vote for it.

But new words have crept into the healthcare debate this summer. “Co-ops” would allow people and businesses to band together to compete with private insurers – replacing the public option. Now, Washington is talking about a “trigger” mechanism. According to this idea, championed by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, a public option would only come into play only if private insurers fail to meet certain benchmarks for competition.

To staunch Democrats, these words are little better than political expletives. But Mr. Axelrod did not dismiss them Sunday.

Like the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, Obama and his advisers may decide to take an incremental approach to comprehensive reform – accepting the 80 percent of healthcare reform upon which Republicans and Democrats can agree and building on that.

Obama stressed this point Monday, saying: "We've never been this close. We've never had such broad agreement on what needs to be done."

He and Axelrod also gave a hint of how the administration intends to try to redirect the healthcare-reform debate in coming days. Both repeatedly used the words "security and stability" in connection with reform efforts.

Whether that indicates a dialing up or dialing down of expectations should become clear soon.

But with Democratic senators such as Ben Nelson and Amy Klobuchar saying Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" that they were open to the trigger option, and Sen. Max Baucus floating a bipartisan plan Monday that did not include a public option, Obama may feel there is only so much he can get – no matter how well he rallies the troops.

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