Although Barack Obama was elected to the US presidency less than a year ago on promises he would fundamentally reform healthcare and “move beyond the divisive politics of Washington”, this week he, along with Democratic congressmen, struggled to refocus the conversation on factual healthcare concerns and distinguish it from a bouquet of fears about government powers.
Chief among protesters’ concerns are that the government would ration care and determine who gets treatment for what ailments.
Mr Obama, and other Democrats, have been trying to counter opposition to the US$1 trillion overhaul by holding a series of town hall meetings across the country, including one yesterday and another today. But their message, that the reforms are necessary to ensure that the 45 million Americans currently without health insurance are covered, has often been overshadowed by the emotive protests at town halls and stubborn rumours.
Reform advocates say corporations with financial interest in the status quo and politically motivated personalities have incited the outrage.
Sarah Palin, the former candidate for US vice president, has accused Mr Obama of wanting to set up “death panels”. In a recent Facebook note she described a hypothetical scenario in which her parents or her baby with Downs syndrome would have to stand before “Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society’, whether they are worthy of health care”.
Mr Obama has repeatedly denied his health proposals include a “death panel”, but the phrase has stuck, and, like rumours that dogged him during the presidential campaign – that he was a Muslim and not born in the United States – has gained a momentum of its own.
Some opponents have likened the “death panels” to Nazi Germany, where children and adults with disabilities were executed, and Mr Obama to Hitler.
Critics have also railed against Britain’s “Orwellian” National Health System (NHS), which they claim is the template for Mr Obama’s healthcare reforms. They say the service allows elderly people to die untreated and puts a value on human life.
A recent editorial in the Investor’s Business Daily, a US-based newspaper, which decried “horrors” of British healthcare, said that Stephen Hawking, the wheelchair-bound scientist, “wouldn’t have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless”.
Mr Hawking, in Washington this week to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honour, for his contributions to science, defended the health service.
In an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, he said he “wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS”.
The Investor’s Business Daily later issued a correction, acknowledging that Mr Hawking did indeed survive the British system, but said he did so only because of his renown.
The scientist’s comments, however, had already spurred a flurry of support on Twitter, the online service that lets users post 140-character “microblogs.” The topic #welovetheNHS was on several occasions the site’s top topic and included several Tweets from Gordon Brown, the British prime minister. The topic was so popular it reportedly briefly crashed the Twitter site on Wednesday.
William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and one-time adviser to Bill Clinton when he was president, noted that the protests and the debate in the United States are “not just about healthcare”.
“Over the past year, the federal government has responded to the economic emergency by wielding nearly unprecedented powers,” he said.
“Clearly there are a number of conservative Americans who are concerned by the expansion of the powers of the federal government. This is about a deep political polarisation of the country. The gap between the two political parties is as wide as it’s been in a very long time.”
The US administration says delaying healthcare reform means more Americans will suffer as a result of the country’s current faulty health care system. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, on Wednesday accused some in the press corps of being disappointed that the president “didn’t get yelled at” during his town hall event in New Hampshire, a suggestion that the media have been hamming up the protests by highlighting the most extreme cases.
Outside the presidential event in New Hampshire, TV cameras caught a protester carrying what turned out to be a loaded weapon and a sign that read, “It is time to water the tree of liberty.”
That is a reference to the first part of a Thomas Jefferson quote that continues “… from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots.”
William Kostric, the protester, was breaking no laws in carrying the firearm and police told the media that he was under careful surveillance. Guns – mostly but not all licensed and legal – have also appeared at numerous non-presidential town hall events across the country.
Although many analysts, including conservatives, expect some sort of healthcare legislation to be signed into law by October, it is unclear if the protesters themselves are winning over converts or having the opposite effect of repelling people.
* The National