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Health Care Reform: A Tale of Two Cities

4 years ago
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MINNEAPOLIS -- As angry Tea Party protesters descended on Washington brandishing banners and chanting slogans against health care reform and the president, Barack Obama took his crusade for reform on the road, coming to Minneapolis to lead an ebullient and defiant campaign-style rally that evoked the Obama candidacy of a year earlier.

In shirtsleeves and without a tie, Obama whipped up a near-capacity crowd of some 14,000 in the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis, telling them, "I may not be first president to take up cause of health care reform but I am determined to be the last. We are going to get it done this year!"

He told a supportive audience that regardless of the rumor-mongering and fear and anger flying around -- even after his address to Congress -- victory was within their grasp. There is "actually solid agreement on 80 percent of what needs to be done," the president said. "That's never been done before."

The crowd, many of whom had waited in line for hours on an unseasonably warm Saturday, roared in approval and responded with chants of "Yes, we can!" -- giving the event more the feel of the campaign trail than a legislative battle over a huge and complex issue.

Recognizing the need to explain as well as exhort, Obama used part of his midday speech to again lay out the specifics policy principles, as he had in his speech to Congress Wednesday night. He repeated many of the same lines: that his plan would neither add to the deficit nor force change on those happy with their health coverage.

"I gave a speech to Congress the other night," he told them. "I can already see that this crowd is a lot more fun." The audience cheered loudly, recognizing the president's jab at South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson's "You lie!'' outburst. (There was one heckler later in Obama's speech, but he left on his own after the crowd booed him.)

Obama pitched his reform appeal to middle-class voters and seniors, some of whom have been the hardest to win over. He noted that over the past year another six million people had lost their health insurance. "These are people who are working every day. These are middle-class Americans," Obama said. Poor people and the unemployed were covered by Medicaid, he noted, but not all working people were.

"We gotta do something!" someone shouted from the audience. "We gotta do something!" the president responded. "We gotta do something because it can happen to anyone. There, but for the grace of God, go I."

"Nobody should be treated that way in the United States of America," he added, "and that's why we're going to bring about change this year."

It was a populist message in a populist state, which is one reason the White House wanted to kick off this campaign in Minnesota. (Obama sat down for an interview with "60 Minutes" to be broadcast Sunday night, and rallies are scheduled for Tuesday in Pittsburgh and Thursday at the University of Maryland in College Park.)

Minnesota has a tradition of progressive politics -- and a counterpoint tradition of popular conservative politicians -- and has had a statewide health insurance plan since the 1990s. As a Minneapolis Star-Tribune article noted Saturday, "Minnesota has one of the healthiest populations and lowest rates of uninsured in the nation, is home to the world-famous Mayo Clinic and has introduced innovations in the cost, quality and access to health care."

But Obama did not mention that Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty is currently in a battle with legislators on funding cuts for the health care system. And White House officials cautioned against seeing Obama's visit as a wholesale endorsement of Minnesota's approach for national reform. Still, Obama was quick to seize on Minnesota's successes.

"We have long known that some places -- including Minnesota -- have been able to deliver quality care at a lower cost," Obama said, citing the well-known Mayo Clinic as an example. "We want to help the whole country learn from what Mayo's doing. We want everybody to know what Minnesota's doing. That will help everybody save money."

Pawlenty, who has increasingly been courting the Republican right as he eyes a possible run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, took advantage of Obama's visit to open a new front in the campaign against health insurance reform: He said that Minnesota and other states could invoke the 10th amendment to the Constitution to block health care legislation from taking effect in the state. The 10th Amendment states that powers "not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States."

The approach may appeal to some, but it carries risks because the "states rights" slogan was invoked by Southern segregationists who rejected the Civil Rights Act. Pawlenty has said that the 10th amendment option on health care reform has nothing to do with seceding from the Union. Saturday's competing rallies were in some respects a contrast between a resurgence in Minneapolis and the insurgents on the National Mall in Washington, with the outcome to be decided in an election-like atmosphere over the coming weeks.

In D.C., tens of thousands of raucous protestors – populists in their way, as well, but conservative and feeling their power -- marched from Freedom Plaza down Pennsylvania Avenue to a rally at the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Sporting hundreds of "Don't Tread on Me" flags, the crowd punctuated the words of a succession of fiery speakers, with a retort to "Yes, we can!"

"We own the dome!" they chanted, pointing at the Capitol. "We own the dome!"

"Hell hath no fury like a taxpayer scorned," Andrew Moylan of National Taxpayer Union told the crowd while exhorting the audience to call on members of Congress from their home states. "You're being ignored today by the media and some politicians."

Rep. Tom Price didn't need to worry – he was one of the speakers at the counter-rally. "Our history is decorated by those who endured the burden of defending freedom," said Price, a Georgia Republican. "Now a new generation of patriots has emerged. You are those patriots."

Referring to the Obama administration's health care plans and budget priorities, Price added: "You will not spend the money of our children and our grandchildren to feed an overstuffed government!"

In Minneapolis, the scene also reflected both sides of the raucous the national debate taking place, as well as the great national divisions over the purpose, scope, and direction of the federal government. While the vast majority of the crowd that lined up for hours waiting to get in were supporters of health care reform and of President Obama, a vocal contingent of opponents and other activists rallied outside the hall.

"I don't want the government telling me what to buy, whether it is computers, light bulbs, or cars. So if you start doing it with health care, where will it end?" asked Laura Oberg, 32, a commercial insurance broker who carried a sign saying, "Do you want this guy in charge of your health?'' above a picture of Obama smoking a cigarette. Several people who walked by shouted in response, "Yes, I do want him in charge," and several exchanges grew heated and were peppered with epithets. "You're an adult -- take care of it yourself!" Oberg shot back.

She said her boyfriend does not carry health insurance because he is young and in good health. "He should have that choice," she said. "Why should the government fine him? That's not America. That's more like Russia."

There were also expressions of disappointment with Obama from the left end of the political spectrum as well.

Ann Butwell of Minneapolis held up a sign saying "Carry the torch of Kennedy not the baggage of Baucus" -- a reference to liberal concerns that the plan emerging from Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, will drop the so-called "public option" and make other compromises to attract conservative votes. "A lot of people feel disillusioned and betrayed because he [Obama] is going for a 'centrist' ideology," said her husband, John Wright, who heads the music ministry at a local Lutheran church. "At least give the public option a vote on the floor, give it a chance."

Butwell wore a brace on her leg, the result of an auto accident 18 years earlier that she said would have bankrupted her if she hadn't had health insurance. "I think the president needs people like us pushing for the real public option," she said.

The crowds lining up to get into the arena tended to be more mainstream supporters, very much like most Minnesotans, and perhaps like most reform proponents around the country -- wishing for a sweeping package but mainly eager to see that some progress is made.

"We have to live with incremental changes," said Meredith Webb, 23, who works with the St. Paul affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW). "Sometimes it's hard to watch, but I think that's how we're going to get there."

"I hope the 'hope' message can outdo the 'fear' message," she added.

"The old saying is that success in politics is when no one walks away happy," said Sean Huntley of Richfield, who stood in line for hours with his wife, Kristin, to get into the Target Center. "But something needs to be done."

"We want to care for patients. We don't want to deal with insurance companies. The system is hadicapping us," said Nathan C. Bahr, a physician who is state director of Doctors for America, a group of medical professionals that advocates for health care reform. "The system is at the breaking point." You must not have a heart if you are not torn up by it."

Others didn't see it that way.

"Basically Obama is going to do what he wants. He thinks he's a dictator," said Kathy Berdahl, who carried a red placard reading "I believe in the Constitution -- I'm a right-wing extremist."

Others carried signs like "Hands off my health care" and "Michelle Bachman for President of the Universe" -- a reference to the conservative Minnesota congresswoman who has been one of the most hardline -- and quotable -- opponents of Obama and the Democratic reform plans.

And, of course, there was the requisite cadre of fringe elements, the "birthers" and "deathers," like one young woman holding up a sign -- misspelled -- reading, "Hitler gave good speaches too."

Asked if she worried that such signs cast the opposition as a lunatic fringe, her companion broke in and said, "The Number One crazy is in the White House." An older woman with them posed a question by way of an answer: "I have my birth certificate. Where is his?" The group said they were from Rochester, Minn., but refused to give their names. "We're too scared. You don't know what the government could do."
Filed Under: Barack Obama, Health Care

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