The health-care reform debate has been diced, sliced and Limbaughed to the point of becoming something we don’t even recognize any more. With town halls hijacked by strident hysterics jabbering any number of talking points, and gun-totin’ lunkheads in Arizona and New Hampshire just outside the venues of these town halls, there’s been enormous heat surrounding this potentially most important issue, and damn little light.
The issue has been viewed through the medical, actuarial, economic and political prisms of Washington, the blogosphere and the national media. But a conference call made by President Obama on Wednesday to Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders points to a new Team Obama strategy to achieving his health-care reform objective: addressing health care as a moral issue.
Just as all other approaches to achieving this monumental legislation have apparently failed, and there’s every reason to think that they will, Obama may be about to deploy his truly secret weapon: a politically diverse, faith-based community of influentials that will accept nothing less than universal coverage, on the basis of the exercise of Scriptural values — values these faith leaders are apparently prepared to vote on, perhaps as soon as November 2010.
Never let it be said that Barack Obama doesn’t know how to use the bully-pulpit powers of his office.
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The first part of this was apparently rolled out on Wednesday, when President Obama conducted the conference call attended by those faith leaders, and maybe as many as 10,000 other callers, random citizens with skin in the health-care game (as we all do, sooner or later).
Among those on the call was the Rev. Jim Wallis, the president of Sojourners, a prominent faith-based organization. Wallis appeared on "The Ed Show" on MSNBC on Wednesday, and gave host Ed Schultz his conservative perspective on the roiling health-care debate — and what at least some in the faith-based community are prepared to do about it.
“With the shouting, the anger and the hate we’re seeing in town meetings, we’re losing … the moral core of this debate, which is, a lot of people are hurting in this broken health-care system,” Wallis said.
“This is right at the heart of our vocation. Right now, fear is controlling this debate, and we have to start talking about truth-telling …
“People — our friends, our loved ones, our neighbors— are hurting. This broken system has to be fixed, and the faith community is not going to settle for anything less than full, accessible health-care coverage for all of God’s children.”
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When a faith leader like Wallis throws down the gauntlet like that, it’s understood that he and others like him do it with the only real power they've got at their disposal (and, rendering unto Caesar, the only one that really matters): the power to vote.
And since those in the nation’s faith communities tend to be older, more politically conservative and more financially secure than other, younger Americans, Wallis’ challenge to Congress to get the health-care job done carries more throw weight than it otherwise might. Conservatives in Congress tend to pay attention to the faith-based constituents in their districts. For good reason.
The president recognizes this, and the power of boiling the health-care reform debate down to its humanistic essence. He recognized this Wednesday when he said, on the conference call, that passage of a meaningful health-care bill is “what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation, and that is that we look out for one another.”
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Obama may be again on the verge of rising to the occasion, as he’s done in the past with other pivotal national issues. His race speech in Philadelphia — perhaps the most masterful exegesis of our third-rail racial fears as any American leader has ever attempted — sticks in the mind as proof that Barack Obama can step up his game like nobody’s business, when the need be.
Today, in another master stroke, Obama brought back the spirit of FDR’s fireside chats, speaking with conservative Philadelphia radio talk show host Michael Smerconish one-on-one at a makeshift studio in the White House, discussing the health-care issue with everyday Americans, and bypassing the GOP spin machine to make his case directly to that audience.
Discussing health care, Obama hinted at what may be a new strategy when he spoke of “ a basic standard of decency” as it relates to health care for the least of us.
Then, right after the Smerconish huddle, Obama joined an online health-care town hall, the Organizing for America National Health Care Forum, at Democratic National Committee headquarters.
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The upshot of all this is simple: the president is going back on the PR offensive on health care, trying to regain both the momentum and the machinery of public opinion on health care. Thursday’s attempt to reframe the debate on the airwaves shows he’s willing to go straight for the same audience right-wing radio lives by.
And there may be more coming. In a powerful but principled on-air debate with MSNBC's Schultz on Wednesday, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter predicted flat-out that President Obama would convene a joint session of Congress on the matter.
That would, of course, be a display of the usual big stick of presidential politics. The departure from the script has already happened. From now until the vote, we can expect President Obama to make use of the Golden Rule — to set a more clearly moral tone to the debate — as he pursues health care reform.
That appeal to adherents of the Bible, the Torah or the Koran may not make any difference in the outcome of the bill. It could make a huge difference next year, when conservatives make their own appeal to those faith-based Americans, and millions of others, in the voting booth.
Image credits: Obama: Chuck Kennedy, The White House.