Health care reform and the resurrection of Neo.

How to fix health policy.
July 22 2009 11:11 PM

The Resurrection of Neo

Obama pitches health reform to the reality-based community.

Click here for a guide to following the health care reform story online.

President Obama. Click image to expand.
President Obama discusses health care reform during a news conference

"You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."

Morpheus to Neo in The Matrix.

"If there's a blue pill and a red pill, and the blue pill is half the price of the red pill and works just as well, why not pay half-price for the thing that's going to make you well?"

President Obama to Jake Tapper of ABC Newsat a July 22 press conference.

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Does President Obama have The Matrix on the brain? Even if inadvertent, allusion to the 1999 film (which I'm going to assume the president has seen) would seem a losing strategy for selling health care reform. For one thing, the film's matrix of simulated reality created by ruthless world-conquering machines to keep human beings docile has already been adopted by conservatives as a metaphor to attack health reform. (See Amity Shlaes' Bloomberg commentary or John Feehery on CNN.com.) For another, since Neo, the character played by Keanu Reeves, turns out to be the messiah, the reference risks reviving John McCain's "Obama thinks he's God" rap from the 2008 presidential campaign. (My own view is that Obama does not think he's God but that the press has sometimes thought he was.)

On the other hand, the health care reform debate has created a certain media-fed hysteria, and the president would understandably like to bring the discussion back to earth. Obama got his pills mixed up—in The Matrix, it's the red one that lets you see the world as it really is and the blue one that returns you to the realm of make-believe—but the underlying point remains relevant. Let's get past all the nonsense here and talk about what's true. Obama is pitching health care reform to the "reality-based community" famously scorned five years agoby Karl Rove.

For Obama, what's real is that 14,000 Americans lose their health insurance every day. For the White House press corps, what's real (and more interesting) is that Bill Kristol and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., mean to exploit a partisan opportunity to damage Obama's presidency. Obama made reference to Kristol and DeMint in the press conference (not by name) and presented himself, by contrast, as a guy who just wanted to alleviate some human suffering and bring medical inflation under control.

Obama's rationalist stance is mostly justified. Health care reform has indeed won support from important groups like the American Medical Association and the American Association of Retired Persons. A variety of plausible tax options exist to pay for it. Although Obama shied away from saying he'd support scaling back the current tax exclusion for health insurance, in a separate interview earlier in the day with Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, he signaled some willingness to consider it. There's even some evidence  that Blue Dog Democrats are starting to back off on their opposition to the House bill. Obama was on shakier ground when he repeated the administration line that health care reform will actually reduce the deficit—the more likely truth is that some government spending will increase as other government spending decreases—but he was correct in asserting that without reform, health care costs will continue to rise in the private sector.

"I'm confident in the end we'll have a bill that Democrats and some Republicans can support," Obama said. Such an outcome isn't guaranteed, but it does remain very possible. To achieve it, Obama doesn't have to be The One; he just has to keep his eye on the ball. So far, evidence suggests he's doing exactly that.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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