President Obama and thoughtful Americans of all political persuasions have discovered this to their dismay: A calm, orderly and adult discussion of the nation's health care reform needs is no match for incendiary scare slogans such as "death panels" and "health care rationing" scripted surreptitiously by health industry corporations that stand to lose their grip on profits.
Like panic in a crowded theater when someone shouts "Fire!," hysteria has spread from one congressional town hall to the next as misinformed voters shouted down substantive changes that would put the brakes on the skyrocketing costs of American health care and would provide care for the uninsured.
Among the most influential demagogues in this sorry abuse of the democratic legislative process, Dick Armey, former Republican House majority leader, has even convinced followers of his propaganda that "health care is a privilege, not a right." Would anti-reform cheerleaders be among the privileged in Armey's vision of health care?
President Obama now has decided to throw himself into the debate with a special speech before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, Sept. 9.
With his popularity polls now sinking below 50 percent and talk turning to pointless compromise with Republicans who want to gut reform's most vital element—a public insurance option—Obama must use this 11th-hour counterattack to regain the initiative from naysayers by forcefully persuading Congress that the nation cannot postpone reform any longer. Delay and watering down reform are the seeds of defeat.
In less than 40 years, since 1970, health care as a percentage of the gross domestic product has leaped from 7 percent to more than 17 percent.
Obama must change the debate vocabulary. "Public option" is too professorial. "Choice" in insurance is clearer. To criticism that his plans involve a "government program," the president must not hem and haw—he must point fingers at the demagogues and remind voters that Washington already has successful insurance programs in Social Security, Medicare, housing loans, pension protection and more.
President Obama has brought intelligence, knowledge and the literacy of a gifted speaker to the White House. However, plain, commonsense talk that any John or Jane Doe can understand is now required. President Truman's man-in-the-street style comes to mind.
If the president fails in his premiere social program, then his ability to enact the rest of his agenda will be targeted by the same fearmongers for defeat.