Obama seeks AFL-CIO support in healthcare fight

Many Americans who have insurance, including the union-hall set, are wary of overhaul and would rather stick with the status quo.

Charles Dharapak / AP
President Barack Obama addresses the AFL-CIO convention on Tuesday, at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh.

President Obama pitched his healthcare plan Tuesday on a more emotional level and to a heartland, blue-collar audience.

A speech in Pittsburgh Steelers country was designed to shore up labor-union support – part of a broader Obama push to get healthcare reform toward the legislative end zone.

"Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?" he asked, drawing roars of support from an AFL-CIO audience. "Let’s go get this done!"

The message was partly a reprise of Mr. Obama's televised speech before Congress last Wednesday, but with this fire-in-the-belly element added in.

Earlier in the day, he stopped at a General Motors assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, with a similar message: "I've got a ton of fight left in me," he said.

Unions were a strong base of support for Obama in last fall's election and beyond, but he needs to bolster this base in the difficult political battle over healthcare. The White House has run into challenges convincing Americans who have insurance, including the union-hall set, that an overhaul is better than the status quo.

His plan, he said Tuesday, will make the healthcare system "work better" for the insured and will make coverage less vulnerable to the ups and downs of the job market.

"The plan I announced will offer more security and stability to Americans who have insurance. It will offer insurance to Americans who don’t. And it will slow the growth of healthcare costs," Obama said.

He touched on other labor-oriented issues Tuesday, but the talks were part of a larger appeal on healthcare. Scheduled events for Obama include a reform rally Thursday at the University of Maryland in College Park, five TV talk shows this Sunday, and the David Letterman show Monday.

By appealing directly and frequently to the American public, some political analysts say, Obama can help his case.

But healthcare reform will require good salesmanship as well as persistence.

Critics say that weaknesses in Obama's plan are exposed by some of his own language – such as emphasizing that his plan won't "require" people to change coverage or doctors. That's true, technically. But the sweeping changes Obama envisions, coupled with the trend of employers reducing or eliminating health benefits, means that keeping current current coverage is far from guaranteed.

Supporters of reform counter that the status quo leaves millions uninsured and millions more at risk if they lose jobs.

Obama's plan, among other things, would:

• Require uninsured individuals to buy coverage.

• Provide subsidies for those who have a hard time affording it.

• Set up an "exchange" where people can choose among plans that meet basic standards. It would be against the law for insurance companies to deny coverage because of a preexisting condition or to drop coverage if someone gets sick.

Polls suggest several hurdles for Obama the salesman. Many Americans are more worried about change than about the status quo. Also, many fret that their own costs would go up if the government tries to guarantee coverage for millions of people who now lack it.

Under Obama's plan, people with high-end insurance plans would effectively face a tax, designed to help pay for the $900 billion cost of the reforms over the next decade. The plan, he says, will be paid for mostly by reallocating money that's already spent within the healthcare system. According to him, this is mainly waste, fraud, and excess profits for insurers.

His critics agree that those problems exist, but they say in practice it won't be easy to squeeze $500 billion of "waste" out of Medicare without also affecting services.


New gas mileage standards

On Tuesday, the Obama administration trumpeted the America's first-ever greenhouse gas emissions standards for vehicles. Click here to read about it.


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