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Commentary: Americans really want health care reform

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"Obama's Speech Doesn't Turn the Tide," reads an ABC News headline about new poll results on public reaction to the president's address on health care reform. An interesting take, given that the tide doesn't need turning.

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The ABC/Washington Post poll found the public evenly divided in being for or against the reform proposals, with the support firming. Democrats should find the poll results encouraging, given the lies, half-truths and confusion that reform's foes have sown across America all summer.

Another new, actually amazing, survey just appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. It found that 73 percent of physicians support a public option -- the government-run health plan that Republicans say they're trying to save them from. Even in the South, the region least receptive to the public option, 66 percent of doctors favored it.

And so why have so many supporters of health care reform become so timid about defending their vision for what should happen? Because they've been exposed to all that right-wing barking about "what the American people want." What the people want, according to reform's enemies, just happens to be what their cash masters in the insurance industry want.

It's one thing for the right to believe its own propaganda. That's to be expected. But it's astounding to see how easily those who purport to gauge the public's reaction fall for it. Assessing public opinion based on the town hall theatrics reminds one of the "applause meters" used on the old TV talent-scout shows to determine the winner. The louder the applause, the greater the talent.

Back to the ABC News/Washington Post survey: It also reports a 48-48 tie between those who approve of Obama's handling of health care and those who don't. But what does that mean? How many of those who disapprove of reforms drawn by Congress -- or Obama's handling of the matter -- are actually ardent supporters of the enterprise? How many, far from opposing such changes, are simply peeved at the watering down of the reforms and Obama's passivity in defending them?

This analysis is backed by the response to another question on the same poll. It asked how you feel about having the government create a new health insurance plan to compete with private health insurance plans. This is the public option, which reform's passionate opponents condemn as a Trojan horse that would push the country down the path of socialism.

According to the poll, some 55 percent of Americans want a public option, with only 42 percent against it. That level of support was actually up slightly from a month earlier.

Here we have two recent polls showing significant backing for the public option. Ordinary Americans are for it. And physicians -- the group with one of the biggest stakes in health care reform -- are even more strongly in favor. (It's odd how few polls have sought the views of doctors, those most intimate with the medical system.)

So how did the public option become such a boogeyman that even moderate Democrats feel they must run from it? Or are some of them also on the insurers' campaign payroll?

The best answer goes back to that smoke-and-mirrors operation that puffed up an impression of growing anger at the reforms -- a few activists successfully drowning out the voices of a much larger and quiet public. Interesting how the right complains of "the liberal media" while turning so many of them into their dupes.

The real story here wasn't that Obama's speech failed to turn the tide in support for the health reforms. It's that the tide favoring them remained high and was no longer ebbing. Health care reform is what the American people really want.

Froma Harrop's e-mail address is fharrop@wctrib.com.

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