President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress on healthcare reform needed to be a game-changer of a speech. That, it seemed, was just about the only thing everyone could agree upon before the speech. Everyone -- even conservatives -- were saying Obama had to either take control of the process or watch it slip away from him. Of course, after the speech, we'll all go right back to disagreeing with each other about whether (or how much) the game was changed, and whether the changes are good things or bad. Such is the nature of politics.
It was a good speech, I have to say, upon my scant minutes of reflection (I'm typing this just after the speech ended, I should add). Obama inserted himself into the fray in a way he has quite simply not done before. One wonders where we would be now if this speech had happened in June, or even July. Obama threw out some new ideas, and gave a much stronger defense for some existing ideas than I've seen anyone yet do. Obama even spoke of the role and size of government, which was also a welcome surprise since Democrats seem to be allergic to defending their position on this issue (to their detriment, in my opinion). And the speech had a rousing finish as well.
But will it change the debate? Even as Obama was speaking, he was actually heckled, although it wasn't clear whether this was from a Republican lawmaker or the gallery above. A clearer contrast could not be made between Obama once again speaking of bipartisanship and respectful debate, and someone shouting what sounded like "Lie!" or "Liar!" at him when he said healthcare reform would not cover illegal immigrants. The grumbling audibly continued while he spoke of not changing the abortion restrictions already in place in the federal budget, and when he moved on to speak of the public option. This heckling during a speech to Congress was the perfect capstone to this summer's town hall screaming matches, in a way. Also telling, the only laugh of the evening was when Obama admitted that "significant details remain to be ironed out."
Stylistically, it was reminiscent of Obama on the campaign trail. But the bar for Obama is so high (set by his own history of public speaking) that this was only remarkable because it has been so absent of late from Obama. Obama had verbal flourishes and delivered most of the speech in the ringing cadence which only he can, when he's on top of his game. But, also slightly telling, the speech didn't even get under way until 17 or 18 minutes past the hour. Obama's been late to this debate, and he was late tonight (although metaphorically convenient for lazy pundits such as myself, this was largely out of his control, I have to point out).
In other words, it was a good speech. Even an excellent speech. And it was delivered very well. The Republican response was shaky and caught off guard by what Obama actually said, in comparison (although it's tough to follow any president, especially this one, in all fairness).
But did it change the debate? And if so, how?
Obama has certainly, in poker terms, now gone "all in" on healthcare reform. He has stated in no uncertain terms that if healthcare reform is not achieved this year, it will be a huge failure -- both for him politically, and for the country at large. Failure, he said many times and in many different ways, is not an acceptable option. He's said this sort of thing before, but never as forcefully and never as unequivocally.
Obama finally started using some good language and some good framing when he described the problem he's trying to fix. Liberal commenters have been all but begging Obama for the past four months to do this, and it is a relief to finally see it happen. Whether it is too late or not to re-frame the debate in the public's mind is an open question, but Obama certainly gave it a good shot tonight. "No one should go broke if they get sick." Many people (myself included) have been exhorting the president for a while to hear lines like this used clearly and forcefully. We certainly got that tonight. Using public universities and private colleges as a contrast of government versus private industry was also a good move -- much better than the previous example of the post office.
Obama also, I think, returned some of the seriousness this debate truly demands. He showed some emotion when talking about the lies spread by his opposition, and once again used clear and concise language when saying so -- from: "It is a lie, plain and simple," to calling out his opponents who are interested only in obstructionism. This forcefulness has also been absent in the whole debate, and it has been sorely missed up until now.
Obama kicked both the Left and the Right around a bit in his speech. He was very careful when admonishing Congress to use language that could apply to either the Right or the Left, depending on the listener's point of view. This was intentional, and I thought it worked fairly well. Obama, at times, was rude to both sides (such as stomping on the applause which "single-payer" got). This showed the independence and pragmatism which Obama has always shown, even while many painted him as a lot more liberal than he ever has been (such as during the past few months, or during the campaign).
Obama tossed out some surprise catnip to Republicans, as well, saying he was going to start a few test programs on (without actually using the term) tort reform -- a big Republican talking point in the debate. He also threw a bone to John McCain, as well (I have to admit I'm going to have to read up on that one to understand what it's all about).
In fact, this speech made one thing perfectly clear: Obama doesn't just spout rhetoric on bipartisanship, he actually believes in it down to the very core of his being. It's not just lip service to him, he really really really believes that bipartisanship is the best way to get things done.
All evidence to the contrary, from pretty much Day One of his administration, it begs pointing out.
So the question remains: did Obama give a game-changing speech tonight, and if so are the changes for the better? Some may answer this solely on the question of the "public option." Obama said some good things about the public option, but he also didn't say that it was the only thing he'd accept. This is not really newsworthy, since it's been Obama's position for a while now. But, like Sherlock Holmes' "dog that didn't bark in the night," the absence of a line in the sand over the public option was noticeable because of all the pressure on Obama to take a stronger stand on it. He, quite simply, did not. He punted on the issue, with very carefully couched language about how he thinks it's a great thing and all... but that he'll probably sign a bill without it.
This is the feeling I got also when Obama talked about the 80 percent of things everyone agrees need doing. I got a real feeling that Obama was in fact lowering the bar to that 80 percent, and that anything else which comes along with it will be nice, but not required. This is most likely going to cause a lot of outcry from progressives. The Left has been struggling to hold Obama up to the rhetoric he used on the campaign trail, and a lot of them may feel Obama is (too easily) settling for a lot less.
But I also got the feeling that the chances for some sort of healthcare reform (even if watered down considerably) happening this year improved noticeably with Obama's speech tonight. The best thing Obama did (hecklers and all) was inject a sense of morals into the debate, and a sense of seriousness -- both of which have been eroding away to nothing in all the screaming matches. Obama will likely get some sort of bill to sign this year, and will chalk it up as a legislative victory. This is indeed an enormous deal, since it only happens once a generation in America, it seems. The Left is going to be seriously disillusioned by "what might have been," and what was jettisoned for political expediency (which is also known as "getting enough votes to pass it"). The Right is going to be seriously disillusioned because whatever passes will likely (at the very least) be a good thing which in no way resembles the terrifying caricature they've been using to scare people for decades. Democrats and Republicans both will use it (from different points of view, of course) next year on the campaign trail. We may have to wait until after the 2010 midterms to fully understand how America actually feels about all of this (both the politics itself, and the healthcare reform).
But Obama did change the game tonight. He changed it from a storyline of: "Healthcare reform is dead" (which the media have been using for months now), to: "What is going to be in whatever healthcare reform that actually passes?" At least, that's how I see it, although I've certainly been wrong about these things before. Such is the nature of insta-punditry.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant