If President Obama’s prime-time speech and news conference were intended to push national healthcare reform over the political goal line, then the effort almost certainly failed. Do more Americans today better understand the still-evolving plans floating around Capitol Hill than they did yesterday? Unlikely.
Take the idea of a health insurance exchange, a feature found in all the Democratic congressional plans. Obama described it as a “marketplace that promotes choice and competition,” as if it were a healthcare version of eBay. Actually, the exchanges would be a government regulatory mechanism that could severely limit consumer choice. Or maybe not. In any case, there are few outside of Washington think tanks who have any idea this idea would work in practice across the country.
Nor was the president clear about the exact role of the government in a changed healthcare delivery system. Although Obama said any bill he signs would “keep government out of health care decisions,” the whole point of Obamacare is to use government to transform how doctor’s provide service by altering incentives.
Now maybe it would be a nudge — to use the language of behavioral economists — from Washington rather than a shove, but few non-experts have any sense of how a typical doctor visit might change. Sure, having a physician prescribe a cheaper blue pill rather than a pricier red pill if they both work the same is a no brainer. But what if the red pill is pricier, no more effective but has fewer nasty side effects like nausea? Or what if the red pill is 40 percent more effective but costs 80 percent more? Who is going to make the red pill-blue pill decision?
But Obama really wasn’t giving a closing argument as to why his plan would be the right solution to America’s healthcare problems. Instead, lackluster public interest in the issue — at least as compared with the recession and rising unemployment — led him to spend considerable time explaining yet again why reform is needed and needed now. Ideally, as the White House sees things, the public would have already accepted its narrative that a) Team Obama stabilized the bad economy it inherited, b) although economy is slowly mending it will take time for the jobs to appear, and c) so while we’re waiting, let’s fix healthcare. But Obama probably didn’t help himself by burying his most powerful argument for middle-class voters with health insurance — that rising healthcare costs prevent bigger wage increases.
Then again, maybe the president’s real problem boils down to his apparent belief in the false choice he presented: “You know, just a broader point, if somebody told you that there is a plan out there that is guaranteed to double your health care costs over the next 10 years, that’s guaranteed to result in more Americans losing their health care and that is by far the biggest contributor to our federal deficit, I think most people would be opposed to that. Well, that’s status quo. … So if we don’t change, we can’t expect a different result.”
Yet it might not be a case of Americans being too comfortable with the status quo as much as it is one of Americans being extremely uncomfortable with Obama’s version of a new status quo.
So was the president successful in getting out his message? Here’s one bad sign: The top morning news shows led not with healthcare but with Obama’s slam against police officers that arrested his friend and college professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. With Congress stymied and public interest waning, a muddled message means a lost opportunity for Obama and healthcare reform.