Obama’s healthcare reform speech gets union crowd fired up

President Barack Obama dusted off his most famous campaign speech Monday to get the labor union crowd “fired up and ready to go” in helping him pass healthcare reform.

Obama, addressing the AFL-CIO’s annual Labor Day picnic in Cincinnati, reiterated his support for a public insurance option — one of labor’s leading priorities in the healthcare reform debate. It’s the first of two events where Obama will address labor supporters.

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The speech comes before Wednesday’s address to a joint session of Congress, where he is set to talk about his health plan.

Even though the president indicated his remarks are a preview of Wednesday’s address, he offered nothing new in terms of specifics.

Obama’s defense of the public option did not go any further than he has in the past, and his comments did not shed much light on what he might say Wednesday night.

Even though the president warned the crowd that he didn’t want “give everything away” in Monday’s address, Obama did say he continues “to believe that a public option within the basket of insurance choices will help improve quality and bring down costs.”

But the president, much like administration officials did over the weekend, seemed to open the door further to the idea of a “trigger” that would set the public option in motion only if the private sector failed to improve on both quality and price.

“I see reform where Americans and small businesses that are shut out of health insurance today will be able to purchase coverage at a price they can afford,” Obama said. “Where they’ll be able to shop and compare in a new health insurance exchange — a marketplace where competition and choice will continue to hold down cost and help deliver them a better deal.”

The AFL-CIO has dug its heels into the sand over the public option, demanding its inclusion in any legislation Obama signs. This became clear after administration officials began floating the idea of dropping that option in favor of a trigger or a health insurance cooperative, leading to criticism from one of the president’s biggest group of supporters.

Bill Samuel, legislative director for the AFL-CIO, said labor leaders were not looking to harass the president on the public option. The president was merely following tradition by appearing at the picnic, and he agreed to speak at next week’s AFL-CIO convention six months ago, Samuel said.

Samuel said labor leaders and the membership in Ohio expected Obama to discuss healthcare, but they didn’t anticipate hearing anything new.

Samuel also said that the union’s leadership feels like the president agrees with its position on the public option. He said Obama and the AFL-CIO both want to see increased competition that will lead to lower prices and better quality, and the union thinks that Obama agrees with it that a public option is the only proposal put forth that would accomplish both of those things.

His statement is nearly identical to what White House officials have said.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Air Force One that Obama continues to believe the public option is “a valuable tool,” but Gibbs declined to comment on reports that draft legislation in the Senate Finance Committee does not contain that provision.

Gibbs would only say that the White House would be “pleased” if committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) were able to quickly pass legislation with bipartisan support. Republican members of the committee Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.) have been vocal in their disdain for the Democratic proposals throughout the August recess.

Baucus circulated his proposal over the Labor Day weekend to a small number of negotiators on the Finance Committee, representing the culmination of weeks of talks among a bipartisan group known as the Gang of Six.

Baucus’s proposal, according to sources, does not include a public option, which liberals say is a necessity but Republicans have blasted as a government takeover of healthcare. Instead, it would set up membership-run health insurance cooperatives, according to sources close to the negotiations.

Liberal groups and labor unions signaled they are preparing to battle Baucus over his plan, sending letters on Friday to Obama, Baucus and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reiterating their demands.

The same supporters have been critical of the president’s perceived reluctance to take more of a leadership role in the healthcare debate.
Obama, in Monday’s speech, noted the “funk” he has seen some of his supporters fall into as the battle of words has intensified over the August recess.

Acknowledging that funk, Obama reverted to campaign mode, telling the story of Edith Childs, whom he says taught him the now-famous phrase, “Fired up, ready to go” ahead of the 2008 South Carolina primary.

The president went off script as he retold the story in an effort to energize the crowd in Cincinnati, chanting, “Fired up! Ready to go!” with the crowd responding.

“It just goes to show you how one voice can change a room. And if it can change a room, it can change a city. And if it can change a city, it can change a state. If it can change a state, it can change a nation. If it can change a nation, it can change the world,” Obama said. “Your voice can change the world. Your voice will get healthcare passed.”

The president is set to meet with progressive congressional members and leadership Tuesday at the White House ahead of Wednesday’s address.

Alexander Bolton contributed to this article.

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