Health Care Stagecraft

President Obama held an “online town hall” health care meeting in Annandale, Virginia today. It was televised and, coincidentally, I happened to catch the emotional centerpiece of the production on CNN. Obama gave a long introductory pitch in support of his health care plan, and then opened the floor to questions. Obama and his staff made a point of assuring the audience that the President had no knowledge of the questions:

VALERIE JARRETT: I’m going to be in charge. Thank you very much, Mr. President.
So in my opening remarks, Mr. President, I mentioned that when you released your YouTube video over the weekend, we received literally hundreds of video questions from all across the country. Your staff looked through all those questions and have selected a cross-section that represents — a broad cross-section of the kinds of questions that came up.

I want to emphasize that the president has not seen the questions ahead of time, absolutely not.

President Obama first took a question from a guy who asked why we don’t just adopt socialized medicine. Then followed this supposedly random selection of the next questioner:

STAFF: Now about a question from the audience?

OBAMA: All right.

STAFF: Please, a show of hands?

OBAMA: And what I always do here is I go girl-boy-girl-boy so that I don’t get into trouble here. (LAUGHTER) All right. This young lady right here?

Since somebody was pointing at you, so I figured — do we have a microphone for folks in the audience so that everybody can hear the question? OK. I think there’s somebody coming from this direction. There you go. You can just hand her the — hand her the mike.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, Mr. President. I’ll try not to cry.

What followed was, nevertheless, a tear-jerker. The woman told a story of woe about having kidney cancer and being unable to obtain health insurance. The high point came when Obama gave her a hug and, to applause from the audience, promised to find a way to help her.


Following their colloquy, Obama reinforced the idea that he didn’t know who she was:

OBAMA: But what was your name again?

QUESTION: My name is Debbie. I’m…

OBAMA: Debbie is a perfect example of somebody who we should, in a country this wealthy, be able to provide coverage for her health care problems. … So, Debbie, you are Exhibit A, and we appreciate you serving — sharing our story.

So: who, exactly, was Exhibit A? The Associated Press has a little more information:

President Barack Obama wanted to put a human face on his plans to overhaul health care, and a Virginia supporter did just that Wednesday. Fighting back tears, Debby Smith, 53, told Obama of her kidney cancer and her inability to obtain health insurance or hold a job.

The president hugged her–she’s a volunteer for his political operation–and called her “exhibit A” in an unsustainable system that is too expensive and complex for millions of Americans. …

Smith, of Appalachia, Va., is a volunteer for Organizing for America, Obama’s political operation within the Democratic National Committee. She obtained her ticket through the White House.

There may be a limit to the cynicism of the Obama White House, but I don’t think we’ve reached it yet.


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