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Michael L. Millenson

Michael L. Millenson

Posted: July 7, 2009 12:06 PM

A Second City Warning to Obama


For all those Obama-ites confident that they won't make the same mistakes pushing health care reform that the Clinton administration did, might I suggest a trip back home?

Just a few minutes into the Second City comedy troupe's latest show, America: All Better!, the usual japes about the Jesus-like hopes projected onto our 44th president gave way to a quick bit about health care reform. A doctor was telling a woman that her diagnosis gave her only three months to live. When she pleaded for help, he told her that the good news was that Obama's health reform plan meant she was scheduled for her next visit just six months from now.

Bad news for Obama -- the audience laughed.

Conventional wisdom says that the shopworn distortions and deceptions that killed health care reform in the past have lost their sting due to combination of middle-class economic worries and soothing on-message reassurances. Perhaps. But comedy works only when it connects with real anxieties. The fact that Second City comics in the heart of Chicago are successfully playing to GOP-fueled fears of rationing should raise a bright red warning flag at the White House.

Here's another warning sign: I was talking with a liberal physician friend who's spent his career serving people in the kinds of Chicago neighborhoods where Obama worked as a community organizer. But my friend's instant reaction to my optimism about reform was concern: "I hope Obama doesn't just open up the government's checkbook." This from a primary care physician whose patients are overwhelming poorly insured or have no insurance at all! But he's also a middle-class guy with taxes to pay and kids to put through college.

A similar warning sign flashed on the recent ABC News special featuring questions for the president. Pastor David Hattenfield of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Cumberland, Maryland rose to address President Obama . He did not ask about the 46 million without health insurance or the estimated 20,000 men and women who die every year -- roughly 55 people every single day -- as a result. Instead, he was concerned about government "taking over" health care and his taxes going up.

In answering the good pastor, Obama, no doubt on autopilot, provided fiscal reassurance, citing his plan to cap itemized deductions for those making over $250,000 a year. Conspicuous by its absence was any reference to morality, Christian principles or the common good.

Yes, I know the administration is constantly rolling out stories featuring average Americans hurting because of inadequate health care. But are the 85 percent of Americans with health insurance listening? There is nothing Republican opponents would like better than for the debate over health care to devolve into a discussion about taxes.

Finally, there is the balancing act of when to roll out specifics. At some point, supporters of reform like myself need specific legislative language we can use to debunk the overarching sense of danger and dread opponents are seeking to instill. Yes, specifics are supposedly on their way, and yes, the upcoming full-court press by the administration to sell reform to Congress and the public may indeed culminate in America, All Better!

But right now, that's going to take one heck of a second act.