Tuned In

Obama's Town Hall: Open Up and Say Aaaah

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Soon after ABC announced it would devote a day to covering President Obama’s healthcare proposals, including a primetime townhall, Republicans began complaining that the program would be an “infomercial” for the President’s plans. And the event started on an auspicious note for the President’s argument that the healthcare system needed to be overhauled: in a show of hands, almost no one in the audience agreed that the system should be left as is. “Let’s stop now!” Obama joked.

But what the President largely got from his questioners afterward was, in doctor’s parlance, a probing examination.

While the broadcast acknowledged the problems affecting health care now—46 million uninsured, skyrocketing costs, lack of preventative care—the questions were, almost entirely, from the perspective of people with health insurance, wondering what they stood to lose.

An employed man asked if his current, top-shelf Blue Cross plan would suffer. A woman asked if the pacemaker implanted in her mother at age 100 would be rejected in a revamped system. Would doctors have to make stark decisions about end-of-life care? Would Obama spare any expense for his own wife or kids’ care? Would insurance benefits be taxed? “Who decides whether we live or die?” asked a worried woman in the taped intro. “The government?”

A Bush medicare official spoke, as did the CEO of Aetna. At one point moderator Charles Gibson even asked whether insuring 46 million uninsured would be a problem—because it would be harder to make a doctor appointment. (What was mostly missing were questions from or about Americans who have no insurance at all; a self-employed man without insurance got a question in at the end of the forum.)

The skeptical (though polite) questioning wasn’t surprising. The public brouhaha over the “infomercial” probably gave ABC special incentive to be tough. And after all, as the sole subject onstage, without an opposition rival, Obama was by definition the argument for change himself. (Even the townhall staging, with Gibson and Obama stationary in formal chairs, made the event look more like an audience with supplicants rather than a debate or press conference.)

In fact, I have to wonder if a debate-style forum with a Republican wouldn’t have been friendlier to the President in a way, since there would have been incentive to challenge the arguments against his proposals too. As it was—even though Obama had the time for lengthy answers and defenses (he joked about Gibson checking his watch)—the dynamic created by the format left the impression of the President alone, defending his plans from a populace full of concerns and doubts. Mostly concerns from the right, although Obama took one question on single-payer health care (after primetime, around midnight).

Still, if you saw the show as an infomercial to begin with, the fact that Obama had the answers to himself probably confirmed that opinion. His style and strategy were heavy on personal charm; “I want to know what she’s eating,” he asked the centenarian’s daughter.

But his answers were long on generalities and prepared stump points (“If we do nothing…” began several answers, to make the argument that costs re out of control in the present system as is; another refrain, “Everyone agrees that…” sought to create an impression of consensus). This President is not allergic to wonky discussions, and the talk may have gotten a little deep in the weeds of priorities, projections and hypotheticals. Americans just beginning to tune in to the debate may not have left with a concrete sense of what to expect from health care reform—largely, of course, because that’s still being worked out. If anyone expected Obama to pull out some charts and simply lay out the deal, they were disappointed, if they didn’t change the channel altogether.

Which means that, for all the attention given to this town hall, the act of selling, or defeating, health care reform is going to be a multi-stage process—one, you have to expect, that will involve more media pushes. (Not least because this event was blasted out of the headlines by Gov. Mark Sanford’s Peccadillo in the Pampas.) Last night, Dr. Obama laid out some broad goals for treatment, but there are more procedures to come.