Politics & Policy

College Rerun

When does the law of diminishing returns kick in on campus rallies for Obamacare?

College Park, Md. – Before the Fourth of July, President Obama went to a community college in Annandale, Va., to make the case for his health-care-reform plan. Yesterday, Obama staged a similar event, on the other side of the Capitol Beltway, speaking before a full house at the University of Maryland in College Park. 

Yesterday’s event was in a bigger venue, the Comcast Center, best known as the home of the Terrapins (the university’s successful basketball team). The location seemed appropriate, as reciting a list of grandiose promises to college students is the equivalent of an unguarded lay-up for Obama.

After Obama’s Annandale address, a highly regarded correspondent concluded, “Americans don’t need to be persuaded that the current way of providing care is frustrating, paperwork-laden, complicated, and growing more expensive. What’s left to sort out is what ought to be done, a process that would require ‘honest accounting’ on several different levels.”

Ten weeks later, it’s tempting to say that nothing has changed, but the debate over the issue has indeed. The skeptics are more energized, while Obama’s allies aren’t sure whether the public option is an irreplaceable component of real reform or an optional bargaining chip. Many members of Congress have indicated they’re unwilling to face constituents on the issue, and the “compromise” plan put forth by Sen. Max Baucus that was supposed to unite Republicans and Democrats seemed to incorporate the worst of both worlds.

Ten weeks ago, Obama seemed to be avoiding the real problem of a divided Democratic caucus and thorny legislative compromises by firing up an already-receptive crowd. Yesterday, he offered more of the same. The closest he came to talking about the specifics of the various bills was to note that “each bill has its strengths, and there are a lot of similarities between them.” He mentioned the Baucus plan, but didn’t give a sense of his support or opposition. He did mention the public option, and the words generated louder-than-usual applause, but he was careful not to imply a veto threat.

There were also the usual implausible comments from Obama: a pledge to eliminate “hundreds of billions” in waste and fraud; a lament that “we are the only nation on earth that leaves millions without health care” (a statement that would probably surprise the Chinese). There was no shortage of heart-rending stories of health-care woes, with the president repeating the examples of the father in Colorado whose child was diagnosed with hemophilila and of the woman who was denied coverage because she didn’t report a preexisting condition of acne. Obama was introduced by a University of Maryland student who described how a trip to the student health center led to a battle with thyroid cancer. Undoubtedly, everyone brings intense personal experiences to this topic, but it’s doubtful that Congress is just one more emotional anecdote away from a bipartisan compromise.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Obama’s reaction since Congress returned from the August recess is his continued unwillingness to reach out to skeptics. His bill is polling roughly 50-50 most of the time, with a healthy fraction still uncertain. Obama could probably generate a lot of good will by saying that he understands skeptics’ concerns — that the past performance of large federal programs warrants wariness about government’s ability to expand its role in the health-care system without patients getting, well, “wee-weed up.”

On Thursday Obama cast the health-care debate as a clash of good and evil: “The forces of status quo are still out there.” “We’re facing the same kind of resistance.” “I’ve heard a lot of Republicans say they want to kill Obamacare.” “We don’t feed on division and anger in this country, we feed on hope and possibility.” Toward the end, Obama mentioned how much he appreciated “hearing constructive criticism” — an incongruous remark, since he never acknowledged any.

From Obamas description, all his opponents are misinformed or lying: “Stop paying attention to the people who are spreading false charges, and pay attention to the doctors and nurses who know our system best.” One wonders if Obama has seen the IBD poll of 1,376 practicing physicians chosen randomly throughout the country; 45 percent they “would consider leaving their practice or taking an early retirement” if Congress passed the plan the Democratic majority and White House have in mind.

Since the Annandale address, Obama has spoken about health care in New Hampshire, Montana, and Colorado, and before Congress and the nation. These events have proven pretty ineffective in moving public opinion. The White House’s decision to take the president just outside the beltway to address roaring arenas must be driven by another goal.

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Or perhaps the speeches are just morale boosters for all involved. The majority of students in attendance were as star-struck as they were when Obama first burst upon the scene; almost all of them had cameras or video cameras. A student yelled out “I love you” during the speech, prompting Obama to improvise, “I love you back!”

Obama concluded by telling a funny and surprisingly self-effacing story of how his campaign encountered and adopted the “fired up, ready to go,” slogan. During the presidential campaign, Obama arrived in South Carolina after midnight and was informed his wake-up call was for 6 a.m. He woke up tired and opened the curtains to see a miserable downpour. Upon picking up the newspaper, he learned that the New York Times had written something “mean about him” (perhaps this part of the story is unintentionally hilarious). His staff drove him to an event an hour and a half away to find . . . that about 20 people had attended. Only the loud and relentless chants of “FIRED UP! READY TO GO!” from hyper-enthusiastic county councilwoman Edith Childs turned the day around. The whole tale felt like something out of Bill Cosby’s classic stand-up routines.

Tales of campaign trips gone awry were refreshing from a man whose recent public addresses have become annoying and predictable mishmashes of grandiose promises and demagogic straw-man attacks on opponents. It was a surprising reminder that Obama once seemed like he was going to be a conciliatory figure in national life.

The campaign is over, unfortunately. Feel-good storytelling wont cut it anymore.

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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