A New Harry and Louise
The discussion over health care reform started with a collegial effort when the White House included people from both sides of the aisle as well as insurance companies, professional medical organizations and even lobbyists in the initial discussions about what "health care reform" is supposed to accomplish.
Unfortunately things have gone downhill from there and by this point have almost--though not completely--devolved into the typical squabble among elected representatives whose primary focus is not health care but their own political capital: "How can I make points that will serve me and my party (but mostly me)?"
Perhaps the best example of this is Senator Jim Demint's (R-SC) comment about the president's plan:" If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo." Anything there, Senator, about helping the un- or underinsured? Didn't think so.
How about lending a hand to businesses--a constituency traditionally claimed by Republicans--that are being crushed by health care costs? No again. (And I have no doubt that if there were a Republican president talking health care reform, some Democratic pol would come up with just as pithy a sound bite that revealed his true priorities.)
The president is on the road this week because he knows that the most powerful weapon in his personal arsenal is what Teddy Roosevelt called the "bully pulpit" of the office. When the president speaks, people listen.
But Obama has not been as persuasive as he might be, and he could do better by showcasing some of the powerful stories that are already out there. A lot of smart people have given this issue a lot of thought and have shared their good ideas.
Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and professor at Harvard Medical School, wrote a compelling piece in the New Yorker that lays out, in plain English and in human terms, what's wrong with our system and what can be done about it. Gawande, who is a national treasure as a writer, makes the reader feel what's at stake. That's something that Obama, for all the praise he gets as a communicator, has not yet done when it comes to health care reform.
Right now, the White House's approach is missing those compelling stories that will help people understand, believe and remember the message. Bill Clinton's opponents told a simple story with the famous "Harry & Louise" ads. Obama could use that model to tell the stories of uninsured America, and this time the stories can even be true.
Second, the White House has to offer a clear explanation of what will change and how things will look in the future. Gawande's model for telling this story is the best one I've seen. What Obama cannot do is engage in the traditional "gotcha" give-and-take that our politicians use instead of substantive debate.
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