On Thursday, President Obama spoke about health care to 15,000 people packed into the University of Maryland's Comcast Center. It was just the kind of young, liberal crowd that formed the core of his base during the campaign last year. He told the largely student crowd that overhauling health insurance was one of the defining struggles of their generation.
"When you're young, I know this isn't always an issue that you have at the top of your mind," Obama said. "You think you're invulnerable. That's how I thought."
Young people make up one of the biggest chunks of the uninsured: One in three adults under 30 does not have health insurance. And, Obama said, most of them are just one accident or illness away from bankruptcy.
"Nearly half of these young people have trouble paying their medical bills," he told the crowd. "Nearly 40 percent are in debt because of it. I mean, think about adding the debt you already have for college, on top of that, another $10,000 or $20,000 or $30,000 or $50,000 worth of debt because you get sick."
Depending On Youth
The solution the president is backing depends on bringing these young, healthy people into the insurance pool. They, like everyone else, would be required to have insurance, but because they use less health care, their premiums would help subsidize coverage for older, less healthy people.
Those under age 26 who are currently on their parents' health insurance would be allowed to stay on, but other young people, not covered by their parents' insurance, would have to purchase their own health insurance or pay a fine.
Brian Burell, a college junior, is still covered under his parents' plan; he said he doubts many of the students who came to the Comcast Center to hear the president understand the options they would face under his proposed plan.
"It's going to be a shock for, I think, a lot of people," Burell said. But, he added, "I think it's better in the long run, because it could be a lot more costly for someone to go out and not have health insurance and have to pay for surgery or whatever comes up."
Chris Ramig, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, was philosophical about the prospect of mandatory insurance.
"It's kind of the same as going without car insurance," he said. "It seems like a good idea until your car gets wrecked, but then, you know, what do you do? So I mean, if you care about your long-term interests, it seems like you would go out and do that instead of just being a free rider off of the system."
Mobilizing The 'Yes We Can' Generation
Like he did during the election season, Obama appealed directly to the youth crowd with his message.
"A lot of you here today and a lot of young people across the country gave your time and your effort to this campaign because you believed that America can still do great things," Obama told the university audience. "You believed that in this country, we don't fear the future; we shape the future."
Now he said he wants them to help him pass a health care bill through Congress.
"We need the voice of the young people to transform this nation," the president said. "So I want to know — are you fired up?"
His call to the audience was met with cheers and applause. It was the kind of enthusiastic response that none of the actual health care bills proposed so far have received from either party in Washington. The White House hopes to harness this momentum when it comes time to push a final bill over the finish line.