Before a crowd estimated at more than 20,000 by law enforcement at Asheville High School on Sunday, Oct. 5, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama outlined a health-care plan he says will cover all Americans and attacked the campaign of his rival, Republican Sen. John McCain, as “out of touch, out of ideas and running out of time.”
Obama, in town to prepare for an Oct. 7 debate against McCain in Nashville, Tenn., also made a surprise appearance the night before at the Grove Park Inn, where he addressed the North Carolina Democratic Party’s annual Vance-Aycock fundraising dinner.
The candidate spoke Sunday to an enthusiastic overflow crowd at Asheville High’s football stadium. After attacking McCain on a number of issues, he spent much of the speech detailing his health-care plan and the country’s economic problems. “Half of all personal bankruptcies are caused in part by medical bills,” Obama said. “That’s not who we are and it’s not who we have to be. Asheville, enough is enough. At this moment, when we stand in the midst of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, some might ask: How can we afford to focus on health care?”
His response was that “the question isn’t how we can afford to focus on health care, the question is: How can we afford not to? In order to fix our economic crisis, we need to fix our health-care system too. The time has come to cut health-care costs and provide care to every single American.”
Obama asserted that his plan will subsidize small businesses providing health care, focus on preventive care, reduce the cost of prescription drugs and prevent companies from denying people care due to pre-existing conditions—all while reducing costs through more efficient management. Those too poor to afford health care or not receiving it through their employer could get access to the federal-government employees’ health-care plan. Much of the rest of the plan would be paid for by raising taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year back to Clinton-era levels.
“If you make less than $250,000 under an Obama administration, you will not see your taxes go up one dime,” he promised. “Now if you make more than a quarter million a year, they’re going back to the rates they were when Bill Clinton was president. If you make less than $150,000, you’ll be paying less, because I’m going to give a tax cut to 95 percent of Americans.”
Obama blasted McCain’s plan, which would give Americans a $2,500 tax credit ($5,000 for families) for health insurance, but tax health-care benefits to help pay for it. “He [McCain] wrote [that] we need to open up the health-care system like we’ve done over the last decade in banking—he wants to deregulate insurance like he’s deregulated banking—and we see how well that’s worked out,” Obama asserted. “Sen. McCain gives you a credit with one hand and raises your taxes with the other,” and millions of Americans would lose health care under such a plan, he charged, adding that McCain’s plan “reflects the same bankrupt philosophy: Take care of the best off, the healthy and wealthy, and good luck to everyone else.”
A statement on McCain’s Web site defended his plan, including decreasing regulation and asserting that combined with the tax credit, it would foster better health care by increasing competition: “An important part of his plan is to use competition to improve the quality of health insurance with greater variety to match people’s needs, lower prices, and portability. Families should be able to purchase health insurance nationwide, across state lines.”
Obama also struck back at accusations that his plan constitutes socialized medicine. “They are not telling the truth: If you like your plan, keep your plan,” he said. “I don’t think government can solve all our problems, but I reject the idea that government has no role to play in protecting ordinary Americans. I reject the thinking that says preserving our free market means letting corporations and special interests do as they please.”
The senator accused the McCain campaign of engaging in smear tactics instead of talking about matters of substance. “I’m going to keep on talking about the issues that matter,” he said. “I’m going to keep on talking the economy, I’m going to talk about health care, I’m going to talk about energy. I’m going to keep on standing up for hard-working families that aren’t getting a fair shake. We’re not going to let John McCain distract us, hoodwink you or bamboozle you.”
He ended the speech with a promise to the crowd to fight for their interests. “You have my word: I will never back down, I will never give up, I will never stop fighting until we fix the health-care system. We’re going to keep fighting until everyone in this country has health care. We’re going to keep fighting until everyone in this country that wants to work has a job.”
While the stadium was packed with mostly supportive people, some Obama critics made their presence known. On the sidewalk leading to part of the Asheville High campus, one man taunted attendees, exclaiming, “Oh, it’s Sunday, and you’re going to see the messiah!” And as Obama spoke, several people in one of the bleachers held a banner that criticized his support for so-called “clean coal.” The banner read “Appalachia says: Don’t betray us, clean coal kills.” Critics of “clean coal,” including the Sierra Club, have said that the term is an oxymoron, and still does significant environmental damage at more expense.
Democrats from around the region—and from other states—came to Asheville for the rally. Jon Feichter, who came from Haywood County, said that before the speech he was talking with other Democrats, who noted that they saw four times as many Obama stickers as McCain stickers in Waynesville, but the reverse ratio in other areas of the county. “We’re very active, and as a matter of fact, I get an e-mail a day [from the campaign],” he said. “It’s really active and they’re out there, canvassing and organizing.”
Shirley Wells said that “a lot of my friends are Republicans—I’m a small business owner—and they keep saying that Republicans are for small business, but what they fail to realize is that our customer base, if they’re not doing well, I don’t have any customers. My business has deteriorated from where it was a year ago. I need to get somebody in there who’s going to give everyone a chance.”
Ruby Daniels travelled with her husband, Patrick, from Greenville, S.C., to see Obama speak. “I like the idea of him bringing people together, [bridging] the division between the races,” she said. “It’s time for that to happen in America.”
The Daniels’ said that they felt there was a good chance of both North Carolina and South Carolina voting for Obama. Recent polls have shown the race in a virtual dead heat in North Carolina, though McCain leads by a wide margin in South Carolina polls. “There’s a lot more support out there than people realize,” Patrick Daniels said. “A lot of people want things to change.”