For months we've known quite a bit about what President Obama wants in a health reform bill. What we were in danger of forgetting was that he can be an inspirational and forceful leader.
He reminded us Wednesday night with his moral, economic and political call to arms on health care. Veering from poetry to prose and back again, sometimes stern, sometimes earnest, always determined, Obama took ownership of what he called "my plan" and his place in nearly 100 years of presidential striving for reform.
He ended with a meditation on the late Ted Kennedy's "large-heartedness" in pursuing a cause that Kennedy, in a letter delivered to Obama after his death, told him was central to "the character of our country." It was, at last, the moral case
some of us have long hoped he would make.
I never bought the idea
that the White House had made a terrible mess of things or that health reform was going to fail. There are too many skilled hands in the administration, too many Democrats in Congress, too many people who recognize that reforms are overdue, and too much risk in doing nothing.
Still, after months of closed-door negotiations, a summer of angry town halls and a sense of drift, this was a sorely needed speech - a moment for Obama to reclaim center stage and address the country with both reason and passion.
The president offered up a few news nuggets, which I'll get into later. But the main purpose of the speech, and its main accomplishment, was a resolute tone. "I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last," Obama said. "The time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action."
He'll never be the last. Whatever happens this year, and I think quite a lot will be accomplished, it's a safe bet that future presidents will continue to tinker with our health care system. Still, the message was clear: Don't mess with me; we are going to get this done.
The speech appeared to reassure restive troops on the left and could pump up Obama's falling job approval numbers. Inside the House chamber, Democratic senators and representatives were wildly effusive. Camera shots of Republicans captured a lot of impassive stoicism, and at least one House GOP leader, Eric Cantor of Virginia, using his BlackBerry.
There was a terribly jarring moment courtesy of Rep. Joe Wilson, (R-S.C.). He shouted "You lie!"
when Obama said the plan wouldn't pay for coverage of illegal immigrants. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sitting behind Obama, looked appalled and scanned the chamber for several minutes to spot the offender. Wilson later apologized.
One of the most striking and characteristic elements of the speech was Obama's balancing act regarding Republicans. With one hand he reached out to them in comity, but he had the other poised to shove them aside if they tried to thwart him with scare tactics and obstructionism.
So you had Obama proposing immediate, cheap insurance policies as a stopgap measure as reforms are phased in - an idea he credited to GOP Sen. John McCain, his 2008 rival. (McCain grinned and stood up to applaud.) He talked about health care bills that Kennedy had worked on with McCain, Utah's Orrin Hatch and Iowa's Charles Grassley. On medical malpractice lawsuits and damage awards that Republicans want to limit, he announced he will go forward with demonstration projects originally considered by the Bush administration. That also drew a bit of rare GOP enthusiasm.
At the same time, Obama aimed sharp criticism at Republicans and demonstrated his patience has limits. "I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it," he said.
He scored former president George W. Bush for deficit spending on the Iraq war and tax cuts for the rich, and said his 10-year, $900 billion health reform effort would be paid for by savings and a tax on some high-end insurance plans.
Obama also pledged to "call out" those who misrepresent his plan. He specifically cited "prominent politicians" who claimed "that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Such a charge would be laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple." He didn't name names, but former McCain running mate Sarah Palin has been the most prominent.
What did we find out that we didn't know? Obama named his price ($900 billion). He strongly endorsed requiring individuals to buy coverage in order to spread costs (like car insurance), requiring businesses to provide insurance or pay into a fund (it's only fair) and creating a public option to compete against private policies in a new marketplace called an exchange. They'd coexist just like public and private universities, he said.
And then he did another one of those perfectly calibrated balancing acts. Progressives, Obama said, should remember their goal is stop insurance company abuses and expand coverage - and the public option is merely a means to that end. Republicans, he added, should not make "wild claims" about a government takeover of health care.
This was a speech advertised as the most important of Obama's eight-month presidency. It may not have been critical to passing health reform. But it was critical for him -- to remind people he isn't always detached, and to recapture the change dynamic that catapulted him to the White House.
Obama closed by saying the politically safe move would be to "defer reform one more year, or one more election, or one more term." That is debatable, given the devastating consequences Democrats suffered when they failed to make any progress on health care in 1994. But there's nothing debatable about what Obama said next: "That's not what we came here to do. We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it."