Paging A Different President Obama

The nation needs to see a different President Obama next Wednesday when he addresses a joint session of Congress.

His laid-back attempt to take the high road just isn't working.

It was all very noble and everything to try to be bipartisan. It was most excellently un-Bush-like to actually ask Congress to try its hand at legislating. It was admirably high-minded to attempt conciliation, to adopt a professorial role, and stay at 30,000 feet.

But no more. The Republican Party and the national discourse have been hijacked by unhinged zealots. The Democratic congressional leadership has shown itself to be incoherent, incapable and corrupted. So for Obama, it's either time to fight back or give up.

Obama could, I guess, back off on everything remotely controversial in his health care proposal, throw the public option and universal coverage and end-of-life counseling overboard, and try to get everyone to find common ground. But even that wouldn't appease his critics. They won't stop fighting just because he does. Their goal is for Obama to lose.

Alternately, Obama could commit himself to some specifics, call out his critics, and remind people why all this is so damned important.

Here's one thing he could say: I'm not going to chase after the crazies on the right anymore. I cannot do business with these people, try as I may. I reach out and they accuse me of being a socialist who wants to pull the plug on grandma.

He could bolster this argument with nearly endless examples of the extreme, vitriolic and outright balmy things leading Republicans have been saying about him and his plan lately. Heck, just yesterday, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe told a town hall audience that Obama is disarming the military, is destroying everything good about America and is determined to turn foreign terrorists loose on U.S. soil.

Non-fire-breathing Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein actually understated the case earlier this month, when he could finally take it no more and wrote:

The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they've given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.

(Incidentally, one way for Obama to elegantly back away from his vain attempt to elicit something bipartisan from the Senate Finance Committee's "Gang of Six" would be to focus attention on the thus-far largely ignored Senate health committee version of the bill.)

In terms of committing to specifics, Obama simply has no choice but to come down firmly on one side or the other regarding the public option.

He needs to explain precisely what the public option is and is not -- how it is not a government takeover of health care or even a government-run health care program, but rather a government-run insurance option that would provide an alternative to the private sector, solely for those individuals or small businesses who either don't have insurance now or want to find a better deal.

And if he decides to sacrifice the public option, he needs to explain both why he is doing that, and how, in its absence, there will be any accountability at all for the insurance industry.

He also needs to honestly and directly address the issue of how we're going to pay for all this. And if he's still committed to his original proposal to limit itemized tax deductions for the nation's highest earners to the same level they were during the Reagan years -- a proposal that Democrats in Congress called dead on arrival -- he needs to aggressively make his case and begin stiffening some of those Democratic spines.

And he needs to openly address the deals he has made with Big Pharma and other industry players. What were his intentions? What did he promise? What did he give up? Are the deals still in force? How does he think he can bridge the chasm between the interests of the health industry on one side and the American public on the other? Because he really can't. So who is going to take the haircut? Whose side is Obama really on?

And finally, Obama needs to remind people of the stakes -- of the reality that his batty critics simply can't deal with, a reality that is way scarier than "death panels." It's a reality in which millions of Americans can't afford to see a doctor when they're sick; in which people can't get insurance because they've been sick in the past; in which people get their coverage rescinded just when they need it; in which people lose insurance because they lost their jobs; in which people go bankrupt and lose their homes to pay their medical bills; in which people die -- yes, die -- because they can't afford the treatment they need, or their insurance carriers won't pay for it.

To some extent, I understand why Obama hasn't taken a more aggressive approach until now. After all, the nativist right is ready to pounce the minute he gives them a video clip that allows them to depict him as an "angry black man." But they'll pounce anyway. They've already pounced. They'll keep pouncing no matter what.

And in any case, Obama doesn't have to actually get angry. All he has to do is level with us, tell us exactly where he stands, and propose a clear, detailed way out of this mess.

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