Fighting Fear With Fear

A political strategist breaks down the health care fight in less than optimistic terms for Slate's John Dickerson:

[In his speech Monday to the AFL-CIO, Obama] suggested they benefited from a fundamental unfairness in the current system. This heartened reform proponents, who believe that Obama has to make insurance companies more obvious villains in order to explain the value of reform for those who already have insurance."Right now the fear of the unknown is trumping the fear of insurance companies," says one strategist involved with a third-party group advocating for reform.

Supporters of reform like to paint the health care debate as a struggle between the forces of enlightened, Platonic reason against the serpent-tongued lies of conservative demagogues and insurance companies, and the confused, reactionary stupor of citizens too lazy not to be hypnotized by it. Obama has been cast as somewhere between a philosopher king and a Greek chariot god.

But Obama has made fire and brimstone a part of his health care pitch from the get-go, and Dickerson's strategist points to a glaring temptation: perhaps Obama should drum up some fear of his own, against the insurance companies--something the White House has been working on (though perhaps not with the object of "fear" in mind) since early August, when it made insurance companies the enemy after the industry had cooperated with its general reform push.

Tonight, Obama will make his highest profile speech on health care since that strategic turn. So, while all the focus of tonight's speech is on the president's attempt to lay out more specific health care policy points, watch closely for how hard Obama pummels insurers. He'll probably be able to hit them pretty hard, given that the policy points will consume most people's attention.

Rhetorically, turning on insurers gave health care problems a face less esoteric than skyrocketing budgetary costs, and Obama will likely attack them tonight.

There are some good reasons to be afraid of insurance companies. But, amid all the pro-reform talk of light and reason vs. ugly lies, look for some Obama-style fear-mongering tonight. In between the bullet points of individual mandate, guaranteed issue, and public option, we'll probably get some brimstone along with them.