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Why Obama persists with his healthcare yada-yada

August 12, 2009 |  5:08 am

an expensive hospital Operating Room

For those sentenced to watch every one of the president's summertime blizzard of healthcare town halls, the torpid gatherings turn out to offer as much drama, excitement and compelling interest as some new TV show called "Real Housewives of Amish Country."

Of course, the Obama infomercials -- hang on, there are two more this week alone, including one in Montana (Hello, Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus) -- are not meant as entertainment to compete with county fair fireworks, the confection conspiracies of reality shows or languid beach walks.

They are part of an unfolding continental struggle over lasting healthcare changes involving hundreds of billions of dollars and something even more valuable to the White House and Republicans: political prestige, heading into next year's crucial midterm elections. (When the party controlling the White House historically loses congressional seats.)

Ticket coverage of Tuesday's New Hampshire town hall is available here and the full Q and A transcript is here.

At the moment, Obama, as eloquent as he can be, appears to be playing PR defense, trying to prove that what most people have and think they like now in health insurance could possibly maybe not be there someday because of costs they don't now see and don't think they pay.

And as a result, they should jump over to his ill-defined new plan that even dozens of congressional Democrats have doubts over and Republicans and simply anti-Obamites are feeding fears about.

The White House's strategic problem is that the more many Americans learn about the incomplete reforms the less they understand them and, thus, the more they fear them. Which briefcase do you want, the imperfect but familiar one in your hand or another one around the corner that we can't show you right now? Trust us.

While Obama's poll popularity has slipped somewhat, the popularity of his keystone ...

... programs has slid dramatically. Now, we fully understand why the president set that early August deadline for a completed bill. His internal polls predicted the kind of coalescing opposition we've seen recently in congressional town halls around the country.

Yes, many are no doubt orchestrated. But no more so than the president's somnolent town halls with campaign volunteers asking questions and instructions e-mailed to millions of supporters with directions on where to go and what to say to members of Congress this month.

Event orchestration is a bipartisan activity that all political outfits attempt; even Hillary Clinton's team planted questions back in Iowa that helped her surge to third place there.

Besides falling tears, TV cameras cannot resist an incoherent demonstrator being hustled out of an arena. Or a red-faced man or woman shouting at some member of Congress who used to live in the home district and now visits during regular recesses to represent Washington back there, rather than the other way around as originally envisioned.

The protesters may well be about disruptive stagecraft. But they wouldn't get so much attention, wouldn't ring true to so many, if they also weren't tapping into an invisible and widespread vein of worry and fear, even anger, abroad in the land. Who doesn't know someone just like them suddenly blindsided into hopeless unemployment? Is that a time that families willingly countenance bold change? Or a time to hunker down with the known?

Last winter Obama's urgent haste to sign an expensive economic stimulation package seemed to make sense if further fiscal shrinkage was to be avoided. Ironically, his ongoing cascade of reform programs, all allegedly urgently needed -- and expensive -- seem to add to uncertainty and fears.

And why the rush? Two-hundred-thirty-three years into nationhood and 16 years after Clinton's flopped healthcare plan, what was so crucial about getting one by early August?

An ambulance set

Of course, Obama didn't get the reforms before the congressional recess, thanks in large part to more conservative members of his own party. And somehow the nation is still standing, even enjoying some days.

But in the face of mounting opposition, amid the eerily gaffe-less silence of Joe Biden's vacation, before his own weeklong time-off on Martha's Vineyard, Obama's got no choice but to go out.

He must sell, sell, sell at least to balance the debate agenda and news coverage, which otherwise would be only criticism, criticism, criticism, including inchoate fears of socialism.

His well-managed events follow a rhetorical template beginning with affectionate applause, introduction of every local Democratic official in attendance and some who are not. He then makes not-so-brief opening remarks about the urgency and reasonableness of reforms. Before taking a handful of audience questions, boy-girl as he likes to point out.

In the time-honored tradition of American politics, as noted by ABC's Teddy Davis, the president's speaking points now focus on the what's-in-it-for-me aspects of insurance reform, three prime but narrow areas of concern revealed by polls.

They are: prohibiting coverage loss once illness strikes, protecting against catastrophic costs, and halting coverage denial for preexisting conditions.There is, of course, much more to the plans, but we'll only see/hear selective slices from any side in coming weeks.

With Obama having staked so much of his first year on healthcare, chances are -- for their own mutual benefit come November 2010 -- congressional Democrats by this winter will likely congregate behind some kind of diluted changes, which Obama and his followers can then tout as a vital first step toward broader healthcare reforms in the future if only voters will donate again and reelect them.

In 15 months we'll know if that partial reform becomes a Pyrrhic victory, having finally given all of Obama's otherwise disorganized and stumbling political opponents at least one unifying issue to agree on and rally 'round.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: American Hospital Assn.