Martin Schram: Obama finally found his true pitch for selling healthcare reform, not to the Have Nots, but the Haves who don't want to lose what they've got.
It was Saturday afternoon when Barack Obama descended to what seemed to be the physical and perhaps metaphorical low point of his 14-month-old presidency.
He entered the incongruously un-presidential subterranean setting of the Capitol visitors' center. There, in an auditorium usually populated by tourists in winter sweat suits or summertime shorts, America's 44th president finally found the perfect rhetorical vehicle that has eluded him for 14 months. And it lifted Obama and his presidency to a historic height in just 28 hours.
For most of a year, Obama had been in campaign mode, trying to sell health care reform to the people who had just voted him into office. But they weren't buying it. Indeed, they kept telling pollsters: (1) they didn't really know what was in the plan; and (2) they listed things they didn't like that they'd heard were in it. Their info was based on distortions and deceptions (and, yes, lies) that were all the rage on talk radio, talk TV and the Internet, courtesy of Obama's loudest conservative critics.
At least that's what Democrats kept telling each other was the reason Obamacare wasn't scoring well in the polls. The real reason, of course, was that the president, a super salesman during his campaign for office -- just had not done a good job of selling his own wares from the Oval Office.
The essential truth of why healthcare reform wasn't selling nationally was just this: Democratic Party leaders were fixated upon all that healthcare reform would provide for those who were in most dire need. Especially the 40 million or 50 million Americans who are most at risk because they have no health insurance at all.
That was factually right, but politically wrong. Because, while some 15 percent of Americans are uninsured, about 85 percent are insured. They are basically satisfied with their health insurance and fearful of unknowns that might it away from them. They were easily frightened by distortions and untruths. For months, Obama's campaign skills proved unequal to the task of winning them back.
Then, Saturday afternoon, all of the House Democrats were waiting when Obama walked into the subterranean auditorium. There, underground, Obama rose to new persuasive heights -- by finally dishing the details of what the health care reform bill will mean for ordinary individuals, families and small businesses.
Providing specifics that had been lacking in previous sales pitches, Obama detailed what Americans would get in the first year of health care reform:
"Small businesses will start getting tax credits so that they can offer health insurance to employees who currently don't have it. ... Parents who are worried about getting coverage for their children with preexisting conditions now are assured that insurance companies have to give them coverage -- this year. ... Insurance companies won't suddenly be able to drop your coverage when you get sick or impose lifetime limits or restrictive limits on the coverage that you have."
Also: "For the first time, young people will be able to stay on their parents' health insurance until they're 26 years old."
The president had assurances for the Haves, those who like what they've already got: "People who like their health insurance are going to be able to keep their health insurance; ... there's no government takeover. People will discover that if they like their doctor, they'll be keeping their doctor."
Obama's immediate goal was solidifying his own House Democrats. On Sunday they gave him his victory -- and Obama's healthcare reform triumph put him up there with FDR's Social Security and LBJ's Medicare.
But every bit as important was the fact that on Saturday afternoon, Obama finally found his true pitch for selling healthcare reform, not to the Have Nots, but the Haves who don't want to lose what they've got.
What he must sell now is not Health Care Reform but Health Care Security for the middle classes: You won't lose it if you lose your job. You won't lose it if you get sick and need it. At last, nobody can take it away.
Now all the president has to do is sell it door to door.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.