"There's a lot of fear out there." That's the view of Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a Democrat from New Hampshire, where President Obama held a town-hall meeting on health care this week. Her comment sums up the president's problem as he tries to sell his reform proposals to the American people.
He's trying to convince folks that things will get worse if the healthcare system remains unaltered. But growing numbers are afraid of exactly the opposite. They see reform as a threat, not a benefit — at least to their own families.
And that leads to a supreme irony. Obama ran and won on the promise of change. But in the healthcare debate, change has become his enemy.
The president is absolutely right to say, as he did in New Hampshire, that his critics are using "scare tactics" and creating "boogeymen." The legislation moving through Congress contains no provision for "death panels" (in Sarah Palin's words) that would dictate end-of-life care. And none of the proposals remotely resemble "socialized medicine."
Moreover, we detest protestors who shout down lawmakers or burn them in effigy. That behavior is a logical extension of a corrosive cable-TV/talk-radio culture that says the only way to discuss politics is open your mouth, shut your ears and insist that you — and only you — have a monopoly on The Truth.
Still, Obama and his allies make a big mistake when they dismiss the critics of healthcare reform as "partisan mobs" incited by "special-interest attack groups" (to quote an e-mail from the Democratic National Committee).
"Spread the facts," Obama said in New Hampshire, and the facts are that a few unruly loudmouths — who might well be overdosing on Rush Limbaugh's vials of bile — are not the president's real problem.
His real problem starts with this fact: About 85 percent of Americans have some form of health coverage, and that number has remained constant for 15 years. Many of those folks might well believe that extending coverage to the uninsured is a worthy and even a moral goal, but they have no direct stake in that issue. And some of them fear that their taxes will go up — or their benefits will be cut — to pay for other peoples' policies.
More seriously for the president, four of five Americans who have insurance tell the ABC/Washington Post poll that they are satisfied with both the cost and quality of their care. These folks don't believe the president's refrain that the status quo is unacceptable. They like the status quo just fine, thank you very much.
That's why the president is trying some "scare tactics" of his own. You might be fine now, he is warning, but without reform, your premiums could go up, your wages could go down, your policy could be canceled if you lose your job or your health.
These are all legitimate arguments, but it's hard to get people to think about an abstract future instead of a concrete present. Yes, they might worry about diminishing coverage or rising premiums. But the seething discontent that is necessary to drive change is just not there. And even if they were unhappy, they simply don't trust the government to improve things.
As a candidate, Obama ran against Washington and tapped into this sense of alienation. Now he IS the government, and that puts him in a very different, and far more difficult, position.
Even with Obama in the White House, eight of 10 voters express concern that health reform will increase their costs, while reducing quality and choice. They also believe, with good reason, that no matter what Obama says, the legislation will add to a deficit that is already out of control. In fact, sizable majorities say they are "very concerned" about these negative side effects.
"It's a huge barrier," Robert Blendon, a professor of healthcare policy at Harvard, told the Washington Post. "These people have something to lose. If they think reform is going to actually make it worse for them, they get really scared."
Obama still has a powerful case to make. Spiraling healthcare costs pose a huge burden for American businesses. Other countries deliver better care for less money. Advancements that invest cash now — computerizing records and improving preventive care — will produce savings in the long run.
The odds still favor the president because many Democrats want so badly for him to succeed. But many Americans who voted for change are now afraid of it, and that's why healthcare reform is faltering.
Cokie Roberts' latest book is "Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation" (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.