President Obama gave an extraordinary performance at his "town hall" meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., on Tuesday. There was no soaring oratory or fainting crowd (although it was a very friendly audience). Actually, overall, the affair was rather dull and unmemorable. What was extraordinary was seeing the president of the United States -- this president of the United States -- spend more than an hour limply defending himself against critics who were neither named nor present on the premises, but rather omnipresent in the very air.
Obama came to New Hampshire to stop the bleeding. His campaign for massive health care reform is dying of 1,000 bipartisan cuts, and the White House senses that time is running out. His diagnosis: Expose the critics as liars. It didn't work.
The president said that people were misrepresenting the Democrats' proposals. He said, "If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan. You won't be waiting in any lines." He went to great lengths to deny that much of anything would change for anyone who likes his or her existing health care plan.
And that's where he failed. At the same time he was promising most everyone in America that health care reform would mean zero noticeable changes in their health insurance, he was attacking the "status quo" and explaining that if reform passes, everything will change.
Only once did Obama refute a criticism by explaining what was actually in any of the bills being considered in Congress. He said the consultations on end-of-life care were not "death panels," but simply extensions of insurance coverage for physician consultations that people need to have toward the end of life. However, he didn't exactly rule out that they could result in bureaucrats pushing family members to pull the plug.
The rest of Obama's defense consisted of reiterating the same talking points he's spent months reciting. He repeated what his intentions were, but most critics aren't attacking his intentions, they're attacking what the results of specific legislation would be. To them, he dealt no crushing blow.
And he kept contradicting himself. For example, he noted that Medicare was in crisis and would soon be bankrupt, then cited it as a proof that government can do health care right.
"Our deficit will continue to grow because Medicare and Medicaid are on an unsustainable path. Medicare is slated to go into the red in about eight to 10 years. I don't know if people are aware of that. If I was a senior citizen, the thing I'd be worried about right now is Medicare starts running out of money because we haven't done anything to make sure that we're getting a good bang for our buck when it comes to health care," he said.
Moments later, he mocked critics who worry about a government takeover of health care, saying, "I do think it's important for particularly seniors who currently receive Medicare to understand that if we're able to get something right like Medicare, then there should be a little more confidence that maybe the government can have a role -- not the dominant role, but a role -- in making sure the people are treated fairly when it comes to insurance," he said.
A program that's going bankrupt within the decade is proof that "we're able to get something right"?
Shortly after that, he tried to reassure listeners that a public option plan would not put private insurers out of business.
"People say, well, how can a private company compete against the government? And my answer is that if the private insurance companies are providing a good bargain, and if the public option has to be self-sustaining -- meaning taxpayers aren't subsidizing it, but it has to run on charging premiums and providing good services and a good network of doctors, just like any other private insurer would do -- then I think private insurers should be able to compete. They do it all the time," he said.
"I mean, if you think about -- if you think about it, UPS and FedEx are doing just fine, right? No, they are. It's the Post Office that's always having problems."
It's hardly reassuring that the two examples Obama chose to demonstrate the competence of the federal government and prove his reform is no threat to private insurers were Medicare and the Postal Service, both of which are going bankrupt.
It is no surprise that there was no "Aha!" moment when a viewer would say, "So that's what he means! I get it now! I'm so relieved!" Obama gave no skeptics any reason to suddenly start believing him. If you weren't a believer before, you are very unlikely to have changed your mind after listening to the President in Portsmouth.
In addition, there were no assaults, and no one shouted down the president. The closest the media could come to creating a shocking moment was to note that someone showed up with a pistol strapped to his hip. That wasn't the brightest move, but New Hampshire is an open carry state, and it's not rare to see someone with a sidearm. No Nazi flag-waving or take-downs of little old ladies with "Hope" t-shirts meant no opportunity to accuse critics of being right-wing lunatics.
If health care reform is to pass Congress, Obama must do more than simply smile broadly and reassure us all that his intentions are pure. It's the details that are killing the plan. And to date the president has not convincingly demonstrated that his intentions will translate into his hoped-for results and not the nightmare critics envision.
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