Obama adds fire to healthcare debate

In an impassioned rally that evoked his campaign, President Obama left what he called the Washington “echo chamber” Monday and urged voters to knock on doors and make phone calls to embolden members of Congress to pass heathcare legislation.

Obama said that Washington pundits obsessed with analyzing the political repercussions of a yes or no vote on healthcare are distracting lawmakers from what’s fundamentally at stake: If Congress fails to act, the president said, premiums will rise, insurers will deny coverage based on preexisting conditions and more people will be without insurance.

“They need to hear your voices because right now the Washington echo chamber is in full throttle,” Obama told an audience of 1,800 at Arcadia University outside Philadelphia. “It is as deafening as it’s ever been. And as we come to that final vote, that echo chamber is telling members of Congress, wait, think about the politics -- instead of thinking about doing the right thing.”

Removing his suit coat, Obama spoke with an emotional intensity that one Democratic senator said had been lacking in his previous healthcare speeches.

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who flew up and back with the president on Air Force One, told reporters afterward: “That’s the most fiery I’ve seen him since the early campaign. When I was listening to him I wished that he had given that in the State of the Union” address in January.

With the Democratic congressional leadership struggling to lock down votes on Capitol Hill, Obama this week is pursuing a beyond-the-Beltway strategy of marshaling grassroots support. He will also talk about healthcare in a visit to St. Louis on Wednesday.

One Senate Democratic aide said Obama’s out-of-town stops are helpful in that they create political space for members to cast a vote in support of the bill.

“He still has a powerful bully pulpit and he’s still our best spokesman,” the aide said.

At this late stage in the debate, influencing public opinion is no small thing. Obama has elevated healthcare to the top of his domestic agenda and has spent the last year attempting to pass a bill. Yet polls show most people don’t like what they have heard about the legislation moving through Congress.

Obama has settled on a simple narrative: Ordinary people are being victimized by profit-minded insurance companies. At the event Monday, he was introduced by a woman named Leslie Banks who had written him a letter about a whopping rate increase.

Obama also tapped into anger in California over a rate hike that was announced by the state’s largest for-profit health insurer, Anthem Blue Cross.

“Just last month, Anthem Blue Cross in California tried to jack up rates by nearly 40% -- 40%. Anybody’s paycheck gone up 40%?” he asked.

A chorus of “No” arose from the crowd.