John Baer: In tonight's speech, a trustworthy Obama needs another save

Audience members cheer as President Obama speaks about health-care reform at the AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic in Cincinnati.
Audience members cheer as President Obama speaks about health-care reform at the AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic in Cincinnati.
Posted: September 09, 2009

IF THERE'S ANY chance of even some health-care reform this year, President Obama tonight needs to reassert himself as someone to be trusted.

He needs to reconvince America that he's an honest agent of change. He needs to draw on his oratory strengths and ability to inspire. And he needs to do so against angst over a still-sluggish economy and in the face of what for many is pure rage at government.

His address to Congress comes at a critical moment of his incumbency.

It's not unlike the moment he confronted in his campaign in March '08 when he spoke at the National Constitution Center on race and his ties to the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Then, Obama's White House run stalled amid suspicions of racism. Now, his reform run stalls amid suspicions of socialism, rationed care and "death panels."

Then he took race head-on. He spoke of welfare and affirmative action, Wright's remarks and blacks' burdens. He said that we have a choice: Continue the politics of division, continue to be diverted by distractions, or, "Come together and say, 'Not this time.' "

This time, he said, we can address issues affecting us all while working toward "a more perfect union."

The speech was magnificent (I'd urge you to reread it) and it saved his candidacy.

He needs another save tonight. He needs to spell it out. To say that there is no socialism, rationed care or "death panels."

He needs to not step on his message as he did in July at a White House health-care news conference. Then, he answered a question about Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates' arrest (while admitting not knowing the facts) by stupidly saying that Cambridge police "acted stupidly."

Sideshow, including that silly beer-garden thing: One. Health care: Nothing.

There followed the summer of simmer-to-boil town-hall sessions with some Medicare recipients screaming to get government's paws off their health care.

Another sideshow. More distraction over action.

So, support for reform slouches toward the swamp that ate "Hillary Care," and new political stakes encompass 2010 midterm elections with Republicans hoping that Obama's failure translates into GOP gains.

More importantly, real-life stakes extend to those without coverage, not enough coverage, those losing coverage and those paying increasingly more for coverage.

Obama has a few advantages: National polls continue to put health care among voters' top priorities, along with jobs and the economy; every major poll and Gallup's daily tracking still show that a majority approve of Obama's job performance; and a new Gallup Poll asking respondents if they'd advise their member of Congress to vote for or against a health-care bill finds 24 percent, a quarter of the nation, "unsure."

Obama has an opportunity to make them sure.

He can take a centrist, willing-to-compromise position, reminding all how unaffordable and unavailable health care is for so many. He can question, as the late Ted Kennedy did, why a Congress with Cadillac coverage won't act to provide comparable care for its constituents.

He can avoid now-toxic phrases such as "public option" or "single-payer" and reassert his basics: If you have coverage, reform means more security and price stability; if you lose your job, you'll still be able to have coverage; if you don't have insurance, you'll be able to get it.

And he can repeat his commonsense argument that, "We just can't afford what we're doing right now."

Finally, he can ask, in plain language: What's the alternative and whom do you trust? A Congress with approval percentages wallowing in the 20s and 30s since May? Health insurers such as the Blues spending millions on TV ads while jacking up subscriber prices? Or someone you elected to change a system so long in need of change? *

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