Obama's Inversion Of Harry And Louise

How President Obama scares people into backing health reform.

President Obama's arguments for health reform aren't without their fire-and-brimstone warnings.

As his opponents have sought to paint him as a liberal idealist, willing to spend a trillion of dollars to implement a big-government health care plan and place a big check mark on the liberal wish list, Obama has hit back on that notion hard--and he's done it, perhaps, by taking a page from the playbook of Harry and Louise.

Harry and Louise, of course, were the TV ad couple who helped torpedo the Clinton-led health reform effort in 1994, doing so with a simple message: if this reform plan goes through, your current health coverage will be taken away.

It was a powerful message, and the fear of coverage being taken away still resonates with Americans uncertain of Obama's plan today.

But what the president has done is turn that same argument around. His basic message: your health coverage will be taken away if we don't reform health care this year.

His arguments for reform have focused heavily on rising costs and the unsustainability of the current system. His public remarks on the matter are rife with figures about how much costs have risen and will rise in the future, and how soon the nation won't be able to pay them.

"In the last nine years, premiums have risen three times faster than wages. If we don nothing, they will rise even higher. In recent years, over one third of small businesses have reduced benefits and many have dropped coverage altogether since the early '90s," Obama told the audience at his town hall meeting on health care in Annandale, Virginia Wednesday.

"If we do not act, more will lose coverage and more will lose their jobs. Unless we act, within a decade, one out of every five dollars we earn will be spent on health care," Obama said.

Obama's economic rhetoric is all about how things can't remain the same. It's the same point the Harry and Louise ad made, but backward, and in Obama's version, the "naysayers" who oppose health reform are the ones who play fast and loose with the coverage Americans currently enjoy. And as polling indicates that Americans are concerned heavily with costs, the president has, in turn, stuck to telling people about the costs of not passing his plan.

In Obama's rhetorical system, there is no status quo to preserve: the fundamental truth about health care is that it's changing, rapidly and frighteningly. Leaving the current system in place is what will cause people to lose what they already have.

It's not that 46 million Americans are uninsured and that we can and must do better, as the richest nation in the world, to ensure them--an argument we heard from Democratic candidates like John Edwards and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign--it's that we have to do something immediately, reactively, because current coverage is being threatened.

"This isn't just about those Americans without health care. It's about every American--because if we do not act to bring down costs, everybody's health care will be in jeopardy," Obama said at Wednesday's town hall.

And so part of his rhetoric is about shaking people with fear into supporting his reforms. If Harry and Louise made people afraid of passing Clinton's reform plan, Obama is making people afraid of not passing his.

Confronting the Harry and Louise argument directly during the question-and-answer segment of the town hall in Annandale, Obama inverted it perfectly.

"Many of you may be satisfied with your health care now.  What you've got to do is project, if current trends continue, are you still going to be happy with your health care five years from now?  Will you have health care five years from now?" Obama asked.

Perhaps learning from the Clinton-led effort, Obama has made sure the "naysayers" aren't the only ones with scary arguments to win people to their side.