As Obama gets his groove back, Black leaders launch grass roots campaign for health care

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (NNPA)—The line is drawn. The Congressional Black Caucus has pledged to kill any House health care bill that doesn’t include a robust public option. Organizational members of the Black Leadership Forum are rolling out an array of grass roots campaigns in support of passing health care reform overall.

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CAMPAIGN LAUNCHED—NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous and Marc Morial, BLF chair and National Urban League president, have launched a grass roots campaign to push for health care. CBC Chair Barbara Lee, D-Calif., far left, says bill will likely fail without public option.

“All of us combined, the organizations who make up the Black Leadership Forum, are going to begin a series of efforts across the nation—in our neighborhoods, in our churches, in our communities to pass comprehensive health care reform,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial, also chair of the 34-member BLF. “This effort is going to be far ranging. It’s not the kind of effort where we have a big sack of money to buy television commercials. But it is an effort that is going to appeal to people’s hearts and minds.”

CBC and BLF members spoke out in a joint press conference Sept. 9. The conference marked the first time that Black elected officials and Black activists have held a joint gathering to help push through the reform that has become an appendage of the Obama administration and could become his legacy.

Later that evening, President Obama appeared to have gotten his groove back as he gave a dynamic speech before a joint session of Congress with the level of charisma that was reminiscent of his campaign days. It also made a strong moral appeal to the nation that pundits had said was missing in his earlier advocacy for the health care bill.

“I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last,” he told the members of the House and Senate who repeatedly applauded the points of the speech. “Our collective failure to meet this challenge—year after year, decade after decade—has led us to a breaking point. Everyone understands the extraordinary hardships that are placed on the uninsured, who live every day just one accident or illness away from bankruptcy. “

White House Domestic Policy Adviser Melody Barnes said in an interview with the NNPA News Service that perceptions that Obama was not moving swiftly enough on clarifying the issues. She said he was listening to the people at town halls and other gatherings during the month of August.

“I think consistently he has believed that when he can talk to people and talk directly to them that he’s able to explain and convey the level of important around a particular issue,” she said. “While there was a lot of media attention focused on a few of the town halls, there was a lot of hyperbole and controversy. There were also a number of other town halls where there was reasoned and considerate debate.”

Once Congress was back in session, the status quo was not acceptable to Americans but it was also clear that because of the amount of information flying around out there…a lot of misinformation around death panels and immigration issues that it was also time for the president to explain to the American people and be very clear about what he does believe in and what he doesn’t believe in, to in some ways provide a summary of what he thinks is an important health care plan and to cut through a lot of the noise that had existed and some of the confusion that had been mounted in the months prior.”

Still, Republicans were often cold and vicious even during the speech. Representative Joe Wilson, R-S.C., drew a firestorm of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans for shouting “You lie!” to the president when he said no illegal immigrants will benefit from the bill. Democrats are still contemplating sanctioning him for violating the dignity or decorum of Congress.

Though the Black leaders have united to help push the bill through, they may split with Obama on the public option issue, which the president implies is optional as long as there is another affordable plan.

“The public option is only a means to that end—and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal,” he said.

Barnes pointed out that there is a diversity of opinion about the public option even within the CBC.

“I think that there is a range of opinion even within the African-American leadership in Congress. But, I think that leadership and the president are united around a single goal. If we don’t have adequate choice in competition, then we aren’t going to be able to address the cost issue. And the public option is an excellent tool. The president has never wavered from saying that he believes it is an outstanding option to try and achieve those goals.”

Still CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee, D-Calif., is adamant about the public option.

“We support health care reform that includes a robust public option like Medicare, a component of health care in which we are unwavering in our support,” she told reporters.

“The speaker [Pelosi] said that she doesn’t think the bill would pass without some form of a public option in the bill,” Lee contended. “We are going to continue to fight and work very hard to make sure that that is included and is in all three of the House bills.”

Rep. Donna Christensen, D-Vt., a medical doctor, argued that without a robust public plan there are no guarantees of reform, of lower rates or of inclusion for the uninsured.

“And I might add that there is no need for a trigger,” said Christensen, co-chair of the CBC Health and Wellness Task Force.

The public option “trigger” is a compromise measure introduced by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, that would phase in a government-backed health care insurer if private insurance companies fail to meet certain qualitative and cost-related benchmarks set by legislators by a certain time. NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, also a BLF member, said his organization is increasing pressure on Congress to pass a public option, a lower-cost alternative to private health care that would be funded by the U.S. government. The public option is viewed by Black advocates as crucial given the disparate rate of unemployment and poverty in the Black community as well as what often amounts to poor quality health care.

“The NAACP has amassed a presence in 1,200 towns and cities across this country,” said Jealous. “Let me be very clear, we are in the district of each Blue Dog [conservative Democrat] in this congress. And we intend to roll out a campaign called “880” because 880,000 Black people would be alive in this decade if we would’ve had real health care reform at the beginning of the last decade.”

Jealous said the NAACP is rolling out a very aggressive campaign in Blue Dog districts, particularly more than a dozen that have Black voting strength of more than 20 percent.

He warned, “We are there, we are watching you and we expect you to do right.”

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