ABC News’ John Berman, Sunlen Miller, Ursula Fahy and David Chalian report: After days of focusing on the financial crisis facing the country, Barack Obama gave a fresh speech for the first time in a week, trying to open up a new front against John McCain on the issue of health care.
Speaking before a crowd in Newport News, Va., Obama invoked the death of his mother at the age of 53 from ovarian cancer, saying, "This isn’t about politics for me. This is personal."
Maybe, but the politics were never far from the surface, with Obama levying a pointed attack on the health plan of John McCain before laying out the details of his own. Obama called McCain’s plan "radical," charging that McCain, "taxes health care benefits for the first time in history."
According to the McCain campaign Web site, under his plan, "every family will receive a direct refundable tax credit — effectively cash — of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families to offset the cost of insurance. Families will be able to choose the insurance provider that suits them best and the money would be sent directly to the insurance provider." In order to pay for this plan, however, McCain in part suggests taxing employer-provided health benefits.
The McCain campaign says the plan is designed to give individuals more choices, and the tax credit is larger than the one families receive now. But predictably, Obama is not impressed.
He told supporters in Virginia, "It’s the same approach George W. Bush floated a few years ago. It was dead on arrival in Congress. But if Senator McCain were to succeed where George Bush failed, it very well could be the beginning of the end of our employer-based health care system." Obama has been trying to tie John McCain to the unpopular 43rd president any chance he gets.
And Obama charged, "under the McCain plan, at least 20 million Americans will lose the insurance they rely on from their workplace."
The McCain campaign responded in a flurry of e-mails calling Obama’s speech a "radical lie." McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said, "It’s a bald faced lie because John McCain will improve the tax code so that middle class paychecks aren’t used to pay government bureaucrats but instead will pay for the access to health care Americans deserve." And Bounds called Obama’s own plan, "a radical turn toward government-run health care that promises to be as efficient as a trip to the DMV."
Obama’s plan, according to his Web site, would "establish a National Health Insurance Exchange with a range of private insurance options as well as a new public plan based on benefits available to members of Congress that will allow individuals and small businesses to buy affordable health coverage." But Obama says, if you like your current insurance, and current doctor, nothing would change. The senator claims that Americans could save up to $2,500 on their premiums. The McCain camp calls it a "push to government run health care."
Throughout the speech to the crowd in Newport News, Obama laced his criticism of the current health care system with the phrase, "It ain’t right." He repeated it five times; a refrain that delighted the crowd, even if it is sure to dismay English teachers.
For the first time, Obama told the story of a 16-year-old boy named Devon that he met in Florida and who has a heart condition. Obama said Devon’s insurance company won’t pay for a procedure, and as a result, he has to "stop all physical activity. No more gym classes. No more football at school. No more basketball at the park with his friends." Obama said he received an e-mail from the boy’s mother saying, "My son deserves all that life has to offer. Money should NEVER determine the quality of a child’s life." Obama promised the Virginia crowd, "You have my word that I will never back down, I will never give up, I will never stop fighting until we have fixed our health care system."
The health care theme, with the speech and accompanying commercials are a subject the campaign had planned to unveil last week, before the congressional stand-off on the financial crisis. It was a speech written to be delivered in Colorado, with the prepared remarks including a line referring to "a postal worker here in Colorado." Obama clearly caught the problem, and changed the home of the postal worker from Colorado to Virginia.
The new timing of the speech gives Obama a chance to dictate part of the narrative heading into the second presidential debate on Tuesday. And, it puts Obama on the attack at the very time that the McCain campaign says it is about to take a more aggressive tone.
Today, it was the McCain campaign on defense, via e-mail at least. In the campaign’s third email response to Obama’s speech today, Bounds alluded to Obama’s ties to William Ayres, a former member of the radical group, The Weather Underground. Ayres, who is now a professor at the University of Illinois, served on a board with Obama and donated to his campaign.
"On a day when new reports have surfaced about Barack Obama’s long association with a domestic terrorist, our Democratic opponent had the audacity to call John McCain’s health care plan ‘radical.’ The American people know radical when they hear it, and John McCain is not the candidate in this election they should be concerned about," Bounds said.
This was Obama’s eighth trip to Virginia in the general election. It is a state that no Democrat has won since 1964, though some polls now show Obama with a slight lead.