All you needed to hear was “New Hampshire” to know the White House’s game plan. If you want to stage a big political moment, to tie yourself and your message to democracy and revolution and good government—you go to New Hampshire. And so it was that President Obama mounted his retort to the GOP’s town hall disruptions in Portsmouth.
Throngs of protestors railed outdoors (one with a—legal—gun; not the first firearm to turn up at these events). They didn’t take Obama’s bait and give him a chance to face them down directly, but he took his swings—and largely connected—nonetheless. The take home: “This is what they always do. We can’t let them do it again. Not this time, not now.” Sound familiar? That’s ’cause it was straight up 2008, when candidate Obama turned every effort to scare voters away from him back on itself. And it’s part of the wise effort to bring this conversation back to the point.
The White House’s second goal was to remind everybody they were more scared of the status quo six months ago than they were of change. “What is truly scary,” Obama declared, “what is truly risky, is if we do nothing.”
The scare of the moment—and to be sure, there will be many new ones—is the lie that the House bill includes “death panels.” Obama pounced on it after a schoolgirl asked how to separate fact from fiction (like, say, the notion no one put her up to the question). He wasn’t half as good as Claire McCaskill, but he used the moment to acknowledge “legitimate” fears of rationing and, once again, turn that fear back on the private sector. “Right now,” he said, “the insurance companies are rationing care.”
The real rhetorical juice here, however, is in the battle for the hearts and minds of seniors. That’s where support is eroding as fears Medicare will get gored increase. It’s one of the great ironies of this debate: the people who have and largely love the biggest government-run health program in America are scared the government will screw it up. The reality is that, for both political and fiscal reasons, the final bill will have to cut Medicare. So between now and then, Obama will surely keep repeating what he hammered today: The goal is to make Medicare more efficient by cutting “give aways” to providers and private insurers, not by cutting subscriber benefits.
What Obama didn’t do was address any critique of his plan from the left. There remain real and meaningful questions about what, exactly, the White House has promised all of these industry groups that it’s met with behind closed doors. As the president himself noted this afternoon, a key tool for reducing costs for both consumers and taxpayers is the ability to negotiate a “better deal” through a large pool. Has the drug industry in particular blocked such negotiating power in exchange for its support? Obama must answer that question clearly.