Obama takes healthcare fight to primetime

The president goes on TV to marshal public support for his plan, and the GOP's not happy about it

By Gabriel Winant

Published June 25, 2009 3:55PM (EDT)

It’s almost high noon in the healthcare fight, and both parties are now engaging in the debate with everything they’ve got. Last night, President Obama spent 90 minutes on ABC answering questions about healthcare, and prodding the stalled Senate to adopt his proposal. The president stressed his belief that a public plan is crucial to any meaningful reform, even for middle class, insured Americans with private coverage.

Naturally, this got the GOP’s goat. Republicans fired back at Obama by live-blog. To summarize: Who says that a public plan is the only kind of authentic reform? Won’t that drive insurers and doctors out of business? Why doesn’t the Republican proposal count? Did you know there’s a Republican proposal, with details and everything? Why does the president get all this free television time anyway?

Conservatives have been up in arms for some time over the special coverage ABC gave Obama on Wednesday, and the access the network got. The actual product didn't exactly stoke the fires, but it didn't quell them either. As Warner Todd Huston argued at Newsbusters, a blog run by the Media Research Center, a conservative press watchdog, ABC did set the president up to dominate his hour-and-a-half of primetime, starting the discussion from a point favorable to Obama -- with the audience agreeing healthcare reform was necessary -- and helping him out further with a handpicked crowd and a nice selection of softball questions.

Still, it’s hard not to notice that Obama, and the Democrats in general, do seem to own this issue. The constant refrain of “We totally care also!” from Republicans comes off as just a touch defensive. This is, after all, an issue that Democrats have always pushed, and reform has virtually always been opposed (usually successfully) on the right. And there's a reason everyone in the audience supported the idea of reform, at least generally -- most Americans feel that way, which is the reason GOP pollster Frank Luntz has warned congressional Republicans that they simply can't be seen as opposing reform, or they'll lose the fight.

Besides, as Obama argued at his press conference this week, and as Robert Reich points out here in Salon, criticisms of the public plan -- the crux of the debate -- tend to boil down to complaints that it will work better than private insurance. (In fact, some of the most compelling criticism of the public plan so far has come from the left; see historian Paul Starr’s take here.) This stuff is hardly going to help the GOP reclaim turf lost long ago due to years of inaction.

On the other hand, Republicans may not need to win the public opinion battle. If they can just keep it close, they (with a generous hand from insurance companies) may be able peel off enough Senate votes from moderate Republicans and red-state Democrats to kill or water down the public plan. Starting out with a pretty clear mandate didn't save past Democratic presidents' reform proposals, after all.

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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