Clarence Page: Could health care be ‘Obama’s Iraq?’

Published 10:09 am Thursday, August 13, 2009

pagestarThis is the August of President Obama’s discontent. His proposed health care overhaul is taking a beating in the polls. Town hall meetings have been disrupted by angry voices, only some of whom were paid to be there.

As Obama fights to get back in front of a signature issue of his presidency, he should find no comfort in how much his troubles remind one former White House aide of George W. Bush’s biggest overseas headache: Iraq.

The first dangerous similarity, former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd observed on ABC’s “This Week,” there is the gathering sense that, “You’ve taken your eye off the ball.” Just as Iraq took Bush’s attention away from Afghanistan, health care seems to have taken Obama’s attention away from the economy.

The second similarity Dowd noted is the crumbling argument that “It’s going to pay for itself.” Remember when oil was supposed to pay for toppling Saddam Hussein? In one major health care proposal after another, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office similarly has shot down that idea.

Finally, when the public starts to turn on you, you attack the opposition. That certainly sounds familiar. Obama seized on South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint’s remarks that, “If we’re able to stop Obama on this (health care), it will be his Waterloo, it will break him.” but DeMint was only slightly overstating the truth. Team Obama needs, as Team Bush did, to address its vulnerabilities rather than simply try to shift the conversation.

With that in mind, I would add even more ominous Iraq similarities to Dowd’s list.
For example, just as Team Bush didn’t send enough troops into Iraq to maintain order, Team Obama was caught off guard by an insurgency of town hall meeting screamers and a surge of Internet-fed myths and rumors.

Bush put too much faith in nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Obama may have put too much faith in Congress producing legislation before the August recess. Now nervous voters are pelting lawmakers with too many questions that don’t yet have a clear answer.

Perhaps Obama needs his own version of the military “surge” in Iraq. Team Obama has launched a new Web site to fight unfounded yet potentially damaging charges of “socialized medicine,” “rationed care” and even forced “euthanasia” for the elderly.
More than that, Obama needs to deal with the fundamental political question: “Where’s mine?”

He’s vowed to address the estimated 40 million who are not insured, rein in skyrocketing costs and offer some form of a public option to compete for our consumer dollars with the private insurance industry. But, with polls showing most of us Americans to be reasonably satisfied with their current insurance, even he admitted recently that he needs to answer the question many of us are raising: “What’s in this for me?”

As the president prepared for a new series of town hall meetings on health care this week, he was expected to shift his emphasis from what the reforms mean to the system on the whole to highlighting reforms that are popular with the 85 percent of Americans who already have health insurance.

They include ending the denial of coverage because of pre-existing illness, preventing the loss of coverage because of new illness and protecting Americans against high out-of-pocket medical costs.

Still the big questions like whether the final legislation will include a “public option” to compete with private insurers and the proposal’s mounting cost projections continue to loom. At some point, the president needs to put some of his political muscle behind cost-cutting measures, even if it steps on the toes of his own political base.

Serious attention, for example, should be paid to a bill proposed by Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden that has amazingly strong bipartisan support, despite today’s polarized political atmosphere.

It would require almost all workers except those in the military or covered by Medicare to enroll in a private insurance plan made available through a new state-run pool of private carriers. Premiums for low- and moderate-income families would be subsidized on a sliding scale, partly through tax incentives. Pooling health care insurance options would drive down costs, its sponsors say. The CBO, for the most part, agrees.

Yet, despite its advantages, it’s a political long shot, precisely because it demands almost all sides of the debate to give something up for long-term benefits. For example, it would end the tax exemption for employer-paid insurance.
But that’s the kind of compromise that has to be made if we’re going to end up with a health care overhaul, it’s worth the trouble.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at), or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.