US President Barack Obama has launched his healthcare reform drive with a televised White House forum, involving the uninsured and the insurers, doctors and patients, as well as Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
AFP - Juggling the roles of professor, conciliator, salesman and crafty political strategist, President Barack Obama launched his healthcare reform drive with the most mild-mannered open debate.
Healthcare might be the most poisoned issue in US domestic politics, separating those who want a bona fide US National Health Service, and others who spit venom at the thought of "socialized medicine."
Yet in a collegial, congenial White House forum Thursday, Obama compared a discussion involving the uninsured and the insurers, doctors and patients, and bitter foes who spend their lives throwing punches across the political aisle.
Obama's healthcare summit, mixing presidential symbolism and informality in the East Room of the White House, was carried live on cable television, and was a powerful political tool as he stresses bipartisan credentials.
The hybrid event had the air of a college seminar, with former law professor Obama directing the free exchange of ideas.
It also recalled campaign townhall meetings, with the audience seated around the president, albeit in a more restrained and choreographed style than the hundreds Obama held on the campaign trail.
The meeting and a similar "fiscal responsibility" summit last week, also allowed Obama, who has vowed to drain partisan bile from Washington, to be conciliatory to political rivals while simultaneously pulling rank over them.
At last week's event Obama interacted live on television with his former Republican rival John McCain, and had the satisfaction of his foe calling him "Mr President."
Whether the two meetings will be any more than a public relations coup for Obama or actually bring all sides together is yet to be seen.
A cynic might point to the fact that the president went out of his way to win Republican support for his economic stimulus package -- but only a few opposition lawmakers supported it.
But even if the effort to bridge apparently gaping divides fails, the president may have started a long-range damage control effort, and could get credit from voters for trying to keep things civil.
With a dramatic flourish Thursday, Obama entered the room with Senator Edward Kennedy, the cancer-battling Senate icon and hero to healthcare campaigners, who got a standing ovation and raucous cheers.
"To Sir Edward Kennedy ...," Obama said, referring to the recent honorary knighthood awarded to his friend by Britain's Queen Elizabeth. "That's the kind of greeting a knight deserves."
The first question went to Republican leader Mitch McConnell -- the only Republican who has the power to block Obama's political agenda -- as his party has enough seats to perform a blocking maneuver in the Senate.
McConnell will hardly have relished the spectacle of being forced to be courteous to the man he spends so much time criticizing.
"First of all, Mr President, thank you very much for having this session today. I think it's useful, and it is significant, as Ted indicated, to have everybody in the room."
For the White House, the encounter, during which Obama called the Senate minority leader "Mitch," was a nice reminder of who was in charge.
Obama also gave floor time to lawmakers who hold the fate of his agenda in Congress, like senior House Democrat Henry Waxman, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, and senior committee Republican Chuck Grassley.
Grassley took a gentle partisan jab, expressing fears government could emerge as too much of a competitor to private firms.
The president also called on Karen Ignani, a representative of American health insurers.
"We want to work with you -- we want to work with the members of Congress on a bipartisan basis here. You have our commitment," she said.
The health insurance lobby was seen by many critics as the ultimate roadblock to healthcare reform the last time it was tried, in a defeat which severely drained former US president Bill Clinton's political capital.
White House officials have only replied vaguely when asked how that defeat impacted their strategy.
But the open, televised event on Thursday cut a clear contrast with the former Democratic president's effort, under then first lady and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which was criticized for being closed, secretive and an attempt to impose a solution on Congress.
Date created : 2009-03-06