All good political dramas feature hair-raising narrow escapes from the claws of policy defeat and the jaws of political death.
If President Obama wants to survive this summer of political drama over health care he will have to do an Indiana Jones exit from the temple of his doom as poll numbers are collapsing around him and newly energized political opponents go in for the “kill” as they smell his blood in the water.
How can he start a comeback? It is all or nothing right now with Wednesday night’s speech to Congress.
The president has to play to his political strength; specifically the trust the American voter has in him to do what is right on health care. When it comes to commanding public trust on healthcare Republicans in Congress, even Democrats in Congress, do not come close to President Obama.
Insurance companies, drug companies, big business also can’t compete with President Obama when it comes to trust.
To quote Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew polling outfit: “For all the public’s reservations about health care reform…Barack Obama continues to enjoy the confidence of a majority of the public with regard to this issue.” In hard poll numbers from Pew a majority, 56 percent of Americans, say they believe the president is looking out for them on health care. Only 45 percent of Americans have such confidence in Congressional Democrats. Even fewer, 39 percent, have any fair in Congressional Republicans to improve the health care system.
CBS News poll numbers also show that a majority of Americans continue to want health care reform. Fifty-four percent agreed when CBS asked: “if there are no government reforms the health care system will get worse.” More than 80 percent, in that same poll agreed that they “see the U.S. health care system as needing major changes.” And nearly 80 percent told the CBS pollsters they want insurance companies to cover “anyone who applies for health insurance regardless of whether or not they have a pre-existing medical condition.”
What is clear on this political map is that most Americans trust one person above all others on health care reform -- President Obama -- and most Americans want health care reform.
But the polling also indicates that two-thirds of Americans are confused by all the health care reform ideas. They fear that the cost of getting medical care will go up, that it will be harder to get an appointment to see the doctor and the overall quality of care will go down if the proposals now in Congress are put into action. Polls also show that most Americans cannot tell you what they most dislike or like about the health care proposals being circulated.
So Americans want reform but they are uninformed and scared. The one person they trust is not saying anything concrete about what is best. -- He only takes time to tell them that his critics are not telling the truth. -- That is a waste of the trust invested in him. That is why the president’s approval ratings on health care are falling fast, threatening to take his whole administration down and sink the Democrats in next year’s midterms.
This means President Obama has to give a speech Wednesday night in which he lives up to the trust given to him by the American people and takes control of a haywire debate over health care.
He has to tell the majority who trust him more than anyone else on this subject to ignore diversions and scare tactics with catch phrases like “death panels,” “rationing” and cries about future tax hikes caused by budget busting deficit spending on health care.
In order to do all of this he has to say is that he has an idea for an all-American health care system that is better than the existing one. Then he needs to specifically lay out that plan in simple terms. And if it means telling people they will have to pay more for health insurance as a matter of common sacrifice for the common good of all Americans then he should say it. He should also say it may mean higher taxes on people who earn less than $250,000.
And if we, the American people, have to pay more then tell us that it is because our personal best interest is best served by having fewer uninsured people and under-insured people jammed into our emergency room and driving up the cost of medicine, hospitals and the price of health insurance.
Tell people who are being scared off by the prospect of bigger health care prices under reform that they are already paying that money out every single day without fixing the problem. And tell them that the problem is going to get worse and more expensive without serious, caring people standing up to address the problem now.
He can say he is open to negotiations about specific ideas but make it clear that the idea of a public health insurance plan or so-called public option is key to making health insurance coverage more easily accessible to more people. It is not intended to put anyone out of business or make insurance more expensive and if the president has the evidence that it won’t he needs to say so and say it loud.
The next step for President Obama to escape his summer of peril is to celebrate his identity as a centrist political leader who genuinely cares about what is best for America. He ran and won the presidency as a centrist. Yes, he has lots of liberal friends and a liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate. Yes, he even has radical friends and appointees like the recently resigned Van Jones.
But his political future is tied to electorate’s middle and when his approval numbers go down it is because of loss of faith from that middle. Democrats and liberals are not abandoning the president on health care. -- Even among conservatives and Republicans only 33 percent and 36 percent respectively, according to the CBS poll, describe themselves as “angry” about the president’s handling of the healthcare debate.
As a crusading champion of the American middle the president needs to launch into the insurance companies, the drug companies, the hospital groups and all the lobbyists who are happy to make money bleeding any business offering health insurance to their employees and bankrupting anyone who gets sick or has a sick parent, spouse -- any relative.
Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel made a mistake by trying to cut private deals with the insurance companies and drug companies before the public debate. It has not stopped the forces of support for the status quo from working against change; it has only freed them from being called out as selfish, greedy fiends who have quietly plotted to scare people by having their political pals to talk about death panels and socialized medicine.
Mr. President, tell stories about people who don’t get health care right now because they’ve been denied coverage despite paying years of insurance bills. Have a mom stand next to you and explain that she works as a waitress and can’t get health care coverage to pay for back-to-school immunizations for her kids. Have an elderly person stand with you and, with tears falling, recount the painful choice between of buying high-priced medicine and missing a meal.
Have someone who lost a limb to diabetes tell the story of how their diagnosis came too late for anything but amputation because they did not have the money or the insurance coverage to see a doctor before they nearly died.
This is the speech that will be a first step to escape a summer of doom. The sequel will be how the president twists arms among fellow Democrats, energizes churches, doctors, civil rights groups, the media, big political donors, unions, the Internet, students, and more to raise their voices and help him now.
Even the president needs help to stay alive on the politically treacherous terrain surrounding health care reform but it all starts with a speech in which he helps himself.
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.