For several months, conservatives have been trying to turn Barack Obama into something scary: a proto-socialist, pro-terrorist, foreign-born, liberal-government-lover who wants to take away your health care. If not your guns.
So it might have come as a bit of a surprise to regular folks—especially independent voters who once liked Obama but now get their information from Fox News—to watch the president’s press conference last night.
Watch the top 5 moments from Obama’s press conference.
Not only was Obama trying to reassure voters about the reasonable and un-radical nature of his health-care reforms. Not only was the future cost of health care terrifyingly high. But the scariest scenario involving the president was a hypothetical case of him trying to force his way into the White House, just like Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor who was arrested in his own home in Cambridge.
“I mean, if I was trying to jigger into—well, I guess this is my house now, so it probably wouldn't happen,” he explained. “Here, I'd get shot.”
Beyond explaining how burglars shouldn’t mess with the Secret Service, Obama had two jobs at his press conference on Wednesday.
One was to turn the health-care debate away from Beltway obsessions of budget curves and legislative wrangling, and back to pocketbook concerns about what struggling families can afford.
He managed to do that by reducing the health debate down to almost subliminally simple terms. “If there's a blue pill and a red pill,” he explained, “and the blue pill is half the price of the red pill and works just as well, why not pay half price for the thing that's going to make you well?”
Funny how the blue-state pill costs half the price of the red-state drug.
Obama’s second job was to remind voters why they elected him president: not just to bring about change, but to be less partisan and to call out the gimmicks of old-style politics.
He charted a less-partisan course by talking about the handful of Republicans who are serious about a health-care overhaul, and about the 160 Republican amendments that found their way into one bill working its way through a Senate committee. He even credited Republicans with coming up with a plan to cut Medicare costs. Being reasonable about Republicans—even if he doesn’t win their votes—is how Obama has traditionally won over independent voters.
And he attacked the gimmicky politics of Washington in his opening remarks. “I understand how easy it is for this town to become consumed in the game of politics—to turn every issue into a running tally of who’s up and who’s down,” he said. “I’ve heard that one Republican strategist told his party that even though they may want to compromise, it’s better politics to “go for the kill.” Another Republican senator said that defeating health reform is about “breaking” me.
“So let me be clear: This isn’t about me. I have great health insurance, and so does every member of Congress. This debate is about the letters I read when I sit in the Oval Office every day, and the stories I hear at town-hall meetings. This is about the woman in Colorado who paid $700 a month to her insurance company only to find out that they wouldn’t pay a dime for her cancer treatment—who had to use up her retirement funds to save her own life.”
In case anyone was unclear about the identity of Obama’s next target, the president made it clear. Alongside the Republicans who want to kill his presidency, Obama counterpunched against the insurance companies.
At one point he stood up for bankers making profits again (although he disliked them paying themselves so much). But he later lambasted insurers for reporting record profits, saying that was precisely why they needed competition from a government option to keep them in line.
“Health-care costs are going up three times the rate of wages and it’s unsustainable,” said one senior White House staffer. “And the insurance companies are cherry-picking the healthy. Those who oppose reform are going to have to explain why to stand up for the status quo.”
And for this White House, there are few things scarier than the status quo.
Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist, political analyst for MSNBC, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, will be published by Crown in June.