On Thursday afternoon, when President Barack Obama entered a room of 50 volunteers, with thousands watching via webcast, he was greeted with the campaign cry of "Yes We Can."
The President smiled, then removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. The symbolism was clear; that catchy phrase helped get us here, but now we need to work for it.
In a speech and Q&A session that lasted over an hour, Obama spoke to members of Organizing for America (OFA), an almost entirely volunteer organization charged with mobilizing the campaign's grass roots strength into a fighting force for health care reform. Before Obama spoke, the Deputy National Director of OFA rattled off some impressive figures to show just how well they were doing: OFA boasts 1.5 million active members who organized 11,906 local events across the country and collected 231,572 personal health care stories. Perhaps the most impressive statistic, and possibly the one with the greatest long term impact, concerned elected officials: OFA members have made 64,912 visits to their local Congressional offices, far outnumbering the protesters screaming at town hall meetings.
Those screeching protesters were on the minds of just about everyone who spoke. Virginia Governor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine led off the session and spoke of opponents to change resorting to "very extreme measures...rudeness, bizarre tactics, shouting." A Twitter-submitted question from Phoenix, Arizona spoke of "too many lies, like death panels" and asked the President "where is it all coming from?" adding: "America deserves to know the truth."
While the president's demeanor and words were reasoned and measured, he didn't shy away from addressing "those lies." Speaking to the question of where they were coming from, Obama said, without hesitation: "We know where these lies are coming from. I don't think it's any secret." He held out an imaginary remote control and continued, "If you just flick channels and stop on one," and he paused as the crowd nodded and chuckled a bit grimly, "you'll see who's propagating this stuff."
In the same calm way that he handled the talk of him palling around with terrorists, the President dispelled the lies one by one. "No plan covers illegal immigrants; let's dispel that. No plan is going to revoke existing prohibitions to pay for abortion. Nobody has proposed anything even close to government takeover of health care. Nobody is talking about getting between you and your doctor."
Obama was at his strongest as he destroyed the myth spread by the former Governor of Alaska: "As for this death panel idea, that's an interesting example of how misinformation spreads." He reminded the audience that Republican senators had proposed the exact same idea, of helping seniors pay for end of life counseling. "This used to be a sensible thing that everyone could agree on. It was once bipartisan," said the President. "For it to suddenly become death panels, that's just irresponsible."
Obama faulted the media for their coverage of the health care reform discussion, saying that by focusing on the few loud voices they were ignoring many others."You have twenty sensible town hall meetings, but if there's one where there's screaming you know what's going to get on the news. One loud voice can drown out all the sensible voices." When OFA volunteers are hosting those nearly 12,000 events to discuss health care reform Obama acknowledged that "the TV cameras aren't there." But he also reminded those in attendance that this is nothing new. He first recalled the reaction to the Iowa primary during the presidential campaign: he had the audience smiling as he recalled the "hand-wringing and teeth gnashing" that went on "when all of Washington said (his campaign) was over." He also recalled that it was about this time last year when the Republican presidential candidate selected his running mate, reminding them that some pundits were saying "Obama had lost his mojo." Obama joined in the general laughter and increased it when he added: "Something about August going into September, where everyone in Washington gets all whee-whee'd up."
As with many of his recent town hall appearances, President Obama made no new announcements. Most of his speech was a reiteration of the desperate need for health care reform ("Fourteen thousand people are losing their health insurance every single day... Health care costs are going up three times faster than wages") and a repeat of the basics of his position ("I think a public option is important, it helps keep insurers honest").
But if there was news made today, it was not in what President Obama said but how he said it. On display was the same steely determination often visible during the campaign but that some supporters thought the President lacked of late. When a person in the audience asked if (considering the level of rhetoric) he was still going to try and get bipartisan support for health care reform, the President reiterated that he was still committed to getting a good product that included Republican ideas. But he acknowledged the difficulties, saying Republican Senators working on health care reform "were under enormous pressure not to engage in any negotiations at all." But his final statement to the question left little doubt as to Obama's main priority: "My obligation to the American people is to get this done."
When the President completed the Q&A session the crowd once again spontaneously erupted with "Yes We Can." And the President himself seemed back in campaign mode as he curtly nodded his head and said, "Let's go get 'em."
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