Obama Tries to Save Healthcare Reform… and His Presidency

Deal W. Hudson
September 10, 2009

With his popularity ratings plummeting and public resistance to his health-care reform proposals increasing, President Barack Obama spoke to Congress and a national television audience for 48 minutes last night. Though touted as his “health-care speech,” the more important subtext was the future of Obama’s presidency itself.

He has let it be known that his legacy and health-care reforms are one and the same. Last July, Obama warned a Democratic congressman, “You are going to destroy my presidency,” if the House of Representatives did not pass a health-care bill. The GOP sees it the same way, as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) has put it: “If we’re able to stop Obama on this [health care], it will be his Waterloo.”

When in need of a political lift, Obama uses television to communicate directly with the American people, rhetorical persuasion having long been considered his strong suit. But it’s unlikely that his eloquence – over-praised, in my opinion – will make much of a difference. The nation’s mood has changed drastically over the past three months, with 52 percent of respondents in a recent poll disapproving of his handling of health care. An astonishing 49 percent now disapprove of his presidency.

So, how did Obama do last night? His delivery was animated, sometimes rousing, but his substance did not offer anything new, except a limp gesture toward exploring medical malpractice tort reform. Democrats sat impassively as Obama told the secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, to commence “demonstration projects in individual states to test these issues.”

Obama’s broad smile at the cheers and applause from the Republicans was a pleasant moment of relief from the predictable standing ovations of the Democrats. (Was this a brief glimpse of the “likable” Obama I have heard so much about?)

Did he answer the challenge of the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue and address head-on the issue of abortion? Not really – he just repeated what he has said before: “No federal dollars will be used to fund abortion.” Yet, as Douglas Johnson, the legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, explains, “Obama brazenly misrepresented the abortion-related component of the health care legislation that his congressional allies and staff have crafted.”

Johnson points out that the present legislation requires anyone enrolled in the government plan to pay premiums “calculated to cover the cost of all elective abortions – this would not be optional.” In other words, Obama is not calling these premiums “federal funds,” because they are not taxes. But, as Johnson says, “These are merely two types of public funds, collected and spent by government agencies.”

Want further proof that Obama is misrepresenting the reform? Obama and others in the Democratic leadership have been unwilling to support amendments clearly stipulating the very thing the president says is already the case: that no federal dollars will pay for abortion.

President Obama added a comment on another issue of interest to Catholics, saying that “federal conscience laws will remain in place.” Obama didn’t mention that on March 6 he removed the conscience protection for pro-life medical personnel put in place at the end of Bush’s second term, leaving nothing in its place.

On the controversial question of the public option, President Obama placed it within the health insurance “exchange” that he proposed as a way of providing affordable coverage for the uninsured. He promised that taxpayers would not subsidize the public option; it would have to rely entirely on premiums. Presumably, this public option insurance would be both unsubsidized and less expensive than private insurance, because it would be run as a not-for-profit.

It’s fitting that Obama referred to the traditional “healthy skepticism of government” of most Americans. To believe that the government can run a non-profit health-insurance company so efficiently that its low overhead will provide for premiums lower than private insurance companies is a true act of faith. Medicare and Medicaid presently have between $80-120 billion of fraud. Why would this new government medical entity be any different?

The same skepticism applies to his much-repeated claim that his $900 billion programs would “not add one dime to the deficit,” because the money would be found by eliminating waste within the present health-care system.

Finally, it was a mistake, in my opinion, to cap the evening with a tribute to Ted Kennedy. His encomium to the late senator was a symbolic reminder of the pro-abortion forces (much of it Catholic) behind health-care reform. In Kennedy’s letter to Obama, he called health care a “moral issue” that reveals “the character of our country.” Precisely. In tonight’s speech, President Obama failed to clear the air about the moral issue at the heart of health care. Until he clearly repudiates abortion coverage, the character of the nation remains at risk.

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