SHUT UP and vote. Now.
That was President Obama's message to lawmakers yesterday as he flew into Montgomery County in a last-ditch effort to overhaul the nation's health-care system, launching a double-barreled attack on insurance companies and Washington politicians as a crowd of 1,800 at Arcadia University egged him on.
"The United States Congress owes the American people a final, up-or-down vote on health care," he said to loud applause. "It's time to make a decision. The time for talk is over."
Although the president's job-approval rating is below 50 percent, most of the audience inside the gymnasium hung on every word - minus the ornery guy in the cowboy hat and a couple of anti-abortion hecklers standing in the back.
The crunch-time atmosphere was reminiscent of Obama's final days on the 2008 campaign trail.
"I love you!" someone shouted from the bleachers as Obama dashed onstage to a deafening roar.
"Love you back," he responded.
Obama ditched his suit jacket and got down to business, lashing out at politicians in both parties who have blocked his signature legislative initiative for the past year.
"When you're in Washington, folks respond to every issue, every decision, every debate, no matter how important it is, with the same question," he said. "What does this mean for the next election? What does it mean for your poll numbers? Is this good for the Democrats or good for the Republicans? Who won the news cycle?
"That's just how Washington is," he said. "They can't help it. They're obsessed with the sport of politics."
Obama then trained his fire on the insurance industry, which he said has been allowed to "run wild." If left unchecked, companies will continue to hike premiums, he said.
"They will keep on doing this for as long as they can get away with it," he said. "This is no secret. They're telling their investors this: We are in the money. We are going to keep on making big profits even though a lot of folks are going to be put under hardship."
He asked: "How much higher do premiums have to rise until we do something about it? How many more Americans have to lose their health insurance? How many more businesses have to drop coverage?"
The White House is calling on Congress to vote on a health-care bill by March 18, when Obama leaves for Asia. He's taking his road show to St. Louis tomorrow.
"That's the most fiery I've seen him since the early campaign," said U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who flew with Obama on Air Force One. "When I was listening to him, I wished that he had given that in the State of the Union."
Polls show only tepid support for the Democrats' health-care plan, which Obama said would prevent spikes in premiums, enable Americans with pre-existing conditions to purchase coverage and require insurance plans to offer free preventive care. The House and Senate have passed different versions of the legislation, but they must still be merged.
Chris Shaw, 47, a printer from Glenside who voted for Obama, said he would rather see the president and the Democrat-controlled Congress focus on job creation. He said his brother-in-law, who is trying to put his son through college, has been unemployed for more than a year.
"It'd be nice if everybody, and every child out there, had health care, the great country that we are," Shaw said. "But jobs should be number one right now. There's too many people out of work."
Katherine Kelley, 21, a Drexel University medical student, was supportive of Obama's call for additional [preventive] care to reduce costs.
"In the long run, it's so much more expensive if you don't have the preventative care early on," she said.
Jackie Higgins, 21, a senior photography major at Arcadia, was also impressed with Obama's speech - with one caveat.
"I just hope he does something about it," she said. "I want to see it happen."
But Jack O'Brien, 47, a Coatesville electrician, said he's opposed to additional government involvement in the health-care system. He said the problem should be solved by charitable organizations and churches, suggesting, for instance, that they hold a second collection at Sunday Mass for the uninsured.
"The government can't provide cheaper health care," O'Brien said. "What does it provide that's cheaper now?"