Nobody ever said the man can’t talk. And if President Barack Obama’s words alone could breathe vigor into Democrats’ effort to rebuild the health care system, we’d be on our way. If only it were so.
Obama opened and closed his speech by finally departing from the fiscal case to make the moral one, invoking Sen. Ted Kennedy’s “large-heartedness” in civil service, the “terror and helplessness” of being without affordable care. He called the status quo “heartbreaking and wrong,” and masterfully branded government as something heroic, compassionate and deeply American, rather than something to fear. It was compelling stuff that progressive Democrats at least were happy to finally hear. “Too often these days this moral responsibility is shunted aside and this becomes about process,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. “We come here with a moral obligation to do right by the people that we represent.”
When Obama wasn’t being compassionate, he was being tough as nails—he came just short of calling Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley a liar for his on again/off again embrace of the “death panel” myth. But amid his tough talk for foes (“If you misrepresent what’s in this plan, we will call you out”) and his steely resolve (“The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action”), Obama didn’t say the one thing that matters most: whether or not he’ll accept a bill without a public plan. Here’s as far as he did go: “I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice. And I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need.”
That sounds firm, but it doesn’t say much. More telling was Obama’s broader framing. He directed the bulk of his argument not toward the Beltway but toward Middle America, making the case that health care is not just for those on welfare, and that reform is not just for the uninsured. “It can happen to every one,” he said. He also blamed all comers—the left, right and the media—for giving the public option an “exaggerated” place in the debate. That’s dishonest at best, given that he’s the one who made the idea a cornerstone of his presidential campaign. But it also suggests the White House is, as many have speculated, playing for a deal with Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe.
Snowe supports a plan that would allow a public option to kick in only after private insurers get a chance to reduce costs and cover more people on their own. Indeed, inside the chamber, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius cornered Snowe for several minutes of what appeared to be intense lobbying even as they awaited the president’s remarks.
The speech had been billed as an attempt to draw “lines in the sand” around specific reforms Obama considers non-negotiable. But the president offered nothing new on that score. He restated the consumer protections he’s been emphasizing for weeks: no denying coverage for pre-existing conditions; no “arbitrary” caps on coverage in a year or a lifetime; no sudden changes to coverage when subscribers get sick and need it most, among others. On the more politically charged questions, he said he won’t sign a bill that adds “one dime to our deficits, either now or in the future.” And he reclaimed Democrats’ mantle as defenders of Medicare.
But while Obama offered no new substance, he significantly tweaked his messaging. In addition to making the moral case for reform, he wagged his finger at both the left and the right for using the public option “as a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles.” You’ll recognize this emotional triangulation from the campaign trail—by scolding both sides, he sells himself as the sensible, refreshing solution to frustratingly old problems.
Republicans helped his cause by acting the part of unreasonable boors. When the president noted, after spelling out his plan, that there were “significant details to be ironed out,” the GOP caucus erupted in laughter. Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas held up signs asking “What Plan? What Bill?” (Other Republicans held aloft copies of a health care bill that they do support.) And in the most heated and unprecedented exchange of the evening, conservative South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson interrupted Obama by screaming, “You lie!” when the president insisted his plan doesn’t seek to cover undocumented immigrants.
“I don’t think in the Congress of the United States there ought to be cat calls or people standing up and yelling comments or holding up signs,” chided California Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman. “I just think that we always stand and applaud whoever the president is, whoever the party may be, because he is our president. And if you don’t agree, you don’t have to applaud.”
It’s almost as if Obama has rope-a-doped the GOP politically. They’ve used their moment at the debate’s center to paint themselves as alternately disrespectful, hysterical and—if Obama has his way in the coming weeks—as dishonest. He can now successfully move forward without them—sort of. There’s every indication the White House sees the path to victory running through Snowe. The question, still unanswered, despite Obama’s impressive rhetorical performance, is whether that success will be merely political or will mark real reform, too.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Kai Wright is The Root’s senior writer. Olopade reported from Washington; Wright from New York.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.