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Obama’s rallying call

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U.S. President Barack Obama made an impressive, eloquent case for fixing America’s broken health-care system in his speech to Congress this week. By framing his $900 billion, 10-year reform program as a test of the nation’s common sense, character and decency, Obama hopes to re-energize his presidency and to put his fiercest critics on the defensive after a summer of overheated grandstanding.

Speaking directly to his Republican tormentors, Obama declared: “I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than to improve it.” But he had a blunt warning for the divided Democrats as well: “I will not accept the status quo as a solution.” In other words, Pull together for change, folks.

While Canadians have no direct stake in Obama’s success or failure, the outcome will define his presidency and affect his ability to deal with Congress on files that do matter to us: economic recovery, Afghanistan, cross-border issues and climate change, among others. Bill Clinton lost control of Congress, in part, over health reform.

The $2.5 trillion American health system urgently needs a fix. It is bankrupting the nation, eating up 17 per cent of the economy compared to 10 per cent in Canada. It leaves 46 million uninsured. Anyone who changes jobs, loses a job or gets divorced may end up with no coverage. And the system cheats even those who are insured, if they fall ill.

Obama cited the case of a woman who needed cancer surgery but whose policy was cancelled because she forgot to tell the insurer she once had acne. By the time it was restored, her cancer had worsened.

Obama’s preferred fix includes better coverage for those who are insured; it would cover those who aren’t; and it would curb costs. The American Medical Association hails this as “vital to reform.” But many Americans fear it will bring higher taxes and premiums.

Republicans, rebounding from their funk, are howling that Obama’s reforms are a Big Government grab at health care; that they’re unaffordable; and that “death panels” will one day “pull the plug on Grandma” to limit costs. That’s rich, from the party that gave $1.7 trillion in tax cuts to the wealthy, enough to fix health care twice over.

Obama’s decision to clarify the stakes and to “call out” Republicans who distort his proposals comes not a moment too soon. Two in three Americans find the complex policy debate confusing. And Obama’s popularity sank over the summer when he steered clear of the fray.

But his bid to rally his own divided Democrat caucus was arguably the more important piece. Obama favours a government-run “public option” insurance scheme, to force down private insurance costs. Even so, he advised liberal Democrats not to torpedo a deal by insisting on it over a co-op system or some other means to provide the same results. And he sternly reminded conservatives that government isn’t the enemy: Medicare, dating back to 1965, and Social Security, from 1935, are progressive, popular government programs.

The Democrats control Congress and can once again “shape the future” and better the nation if they choose to pull together. That was Obama’s rallying cry. Now his party must decide whether to follow.

Torstar Syndication Services

© 2009 Torstar Syndication Services. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved

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