Obama Must Work to Reframe the Healthcare Debate

This is what Obama's hastily-scheduled Wednesday night press conference was about. But he needs to do much more.

Barack Obama's most ardent critics would have us believe that his bumbling of the health-care reform push -- and, yes, he has bumbled it -- will doom his presidency.

The critics would, of course, be wrong.

That does not mean, however, that their claims and charges are being dismissed by the White House.

Republican references to the current health-care fight as Obama's "Waterloo" are ridiculously overblown. But they appear to be having a positive influence on the administration's approach to broader struggles over this particular issue and this particular president's political future.

Indeed, the nasty turn that the debate has taken seems, finally, to have convinced Obama to speak up in a more forceful and -- supporters of real reform hope -- more focused manner.

"Right now, we're losing the messaging war," Senator Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, noted this week, in what would certainly qualify as an understatement.

This is what Obama's hastily-scheduled Wednesday night press conference on the health care debate was all about.

Framing the fight as a struggle to get needed care to working families, the president declared, "This debate is not a game for these Americans, and they cannot afford to wait for reform any longer. They are looking to us for leadership. And we must not let them down."

Obama used the press conference to argue, at length, that his promised reforms would be fiscally responsible. In particular, he pledged to reject any plan "primarily funded through taxing middle-class families."

Again and again, the president returned to the theme that his reforms would be designed to serve working families and the middle class. He even credited them with setting his mid-summer deadline for House and Senate action on reform measures. "I'm rushed because I get letters every day from families that are being clobbered by health care costs, and they ask me can you help," said Obama.

The president's new mantra is: "I want to keep the pressure on."

Actually, Obama is only beginning to turn the pressure on.

The president is beginning to understand something that he should have recognized long ago: There is a consensus on the need for health-care reform. But there is no consensus on the scope and character of that reform.

As the Washington Post notes, "public opinion (is) still waiting to be shaped on health care" and "the legislative (are) details in flux."

Obama, alone, must forge the latter consensus.

He cannot wait for competing House and Senate committees to reconcile their various proposals and then present the White House with a turn-key program for providing health-care to all while controlling costs.

This is not a change that will come from Congress.

It must come from America. And Obama must use his bully pulpit to educate and organize on behalf of that change.

He seemed to recognize that reality Wednesday, when he and his aides arranged the primetime press conference after what could only be described as a series of unfortunate developments.

Central to the process -- and to the progression in the president's way of thinking -- was the emergence of the Republican fantasy that wrecking reform would wreck Obama.

"I can almost guarantee you this thing won't pass before August, and if we can hold it back until we go home for a month's break in August," South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint told backers of the anti-reform group Conservatives for Patients Rights -- a group headed by the former CEO of the scandal-plagued Columbia/HCA Healthcare corporation.


John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent.
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