President Obama showed the nation who he is and what he believes in last night.
His speech to a joint session of Congress wasn't the partisan declaration of war that many of his fellow Democrats had been yearning for, but it was nevertheless a bold and confident declaration of basic principles, and a powerful and emotional attempt to recapture the public debate from the unhinged zealots who dominated it during August.
What is now more obvious than ever is that Obama is not a traditional liberal. Yes, he shares a lot of liberal values -- and he expressed that more clearly and passionately last night than perhaps ever before -- but when push comes to shove, he cares more about finding common ground than pretty much anything else. Despite all the calls to issue an ultimatum about the public option -- which seems absolutely critical to achieving fundamental change -- Obama simply will not draw lines in the sand. He still wants to get as many people into the tent as possible.
The speech did mark a turning point, however. The president we saw last night was not the high-minded pushover we'd seen so much of lately. He was inspirational, forceful -- presidential. The ending of his speech was one for the ages:
We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it. I still believe we can act even when it's hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history's test. Because that is who we are. That is our calling. That is our character.
And to his great credit, Obama robustly addressed what had been the biggest flaw of his strategy so far. The problem with his consensus-building, community-organizer approach to making policy -- whether you like it or not -- is that it simply doesn't work if there isn't even an agreement about basic facts, or if some of the people in the room aren't negotiating in good faith. And on this topic, Obama came out fighting:
Some of people's concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but by prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Now, such a charge would be laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.
Later, he added:
I will continue to seek common ground in the weeks ahead.... But know this: I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than to improve it. I won't stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what's in this plan, we will call you out.
He was particularly feisty when it came to beating back the "demagoguery and distortion during the course of this debate" related to Medicare. "[D]on't pay attention to those scary stories about how your benefits will be cut," he said -- "especially since some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past and just this year supported a budget that would essentially have turned Medicare into a privatized voucher program."
Even as he fought back against the misinformation campaigns from the right, however, Obama refused to demonize Republicans generally. They didn't return the favor, of course, greeting his speech with boos and antics -- and in one congressman's case, screaming "You lie!" after Obama denied that his health care proposal would cover illegal immigrants. But on one level, it's a smart strategy for Obama. His goal, after all, is not to eliminate the opposition -- it's simply to get them to occupy reality. Perhaps by keeping an open hand, he can still lure a few of them into that tent of his -- or at least get credit for trying. Your average non-crazy Republican voter might even appreciate it.
Obama most definitely did not do what many of us had called upon him to do, and that was come down firmly on one side or the other regarding the public option. As it turns out, that's just not in his DNA. At least he was explicit about what the public option really means, explaining: "I have no interest in putting insurance companies out of business.... I just want to hold them accountable." And he did issue an ultimatum of sorts, saying: "I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice."
It's just that we still have no idea what specific proposals he will ultimately conclude satisfy that basic principle -- or how he will reach that conclusion. And there's reason to worry. For instance, last night he continued to describe the proposal that such an option be administered by "a co-op or another non-profit entity" as a "constructive idea" -- even though it is, by almost all accounts, a laughably preposterous and incoherent one.
The public option is right there in black and white in the very interesting document the White House Web-published simultaneously with the speech. "The Obama Plan":
Offers a public health insurance option to provide the uninsured and those who can't find affordable coverage with a real choice. The President believes this option will promote competition, hold insurance companies accountable and assure affordable choices. It is completely voluntary.
But in a conference call with bloggers after the speech, White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer was unable to say which bullet points in the plan as published might be negotiable, and which might not. "The principles the president laid out in the plan are not negotiable," Pfeiffer said. He just wouldn't say as much for any of the specifics. (He also said the White House has not decided yet whether to send its own version of the bill to the Hill, rather than try to work with the versions emerging from the five different congressional committees.)
And one very important thing was entirely missing from Obama's speech: Any explanation of what he's been up to in his backroom deals with health industry titans. This demonstrated a real lack of transparency, honesty, and courage on Obama's part, and until he addresses this issue full-on, the man continues to have a not inconsiderable credibility problem.
The biggest challenge for Obama at this point, however, is the press. Will his speech be a game-changer as far as the coverage is concerned? Last night's triumphant visuals, including wildly cheering Democrats, and the resulting instapolls certainly proved a change of pace from the angry town-halls and barrage of lunacy that so transfixed our elite reporters during August. But the question is actually less whether the tenor of the coverage will change than whether the media will take this occasion to engage -- even just a little bit -- in a serious examination of the issues. Chances are, of course, that the vast majority of the coverage will continue to focus obsessively on politics and process -- and on the next conflict, the next gun-toting whacko, and the next spectacular bit of disinformation. That wouldn't be good for Obama -- or for the nation.
As it happens, however, there is some great drama worth covering right in the policy arena. Will the more widely acceptable bill that appears likely to emerge from this newly refocused White House effort actually be the best one possible? Or will the cost of having more people in the tent -- particularly the industry titans -- be ruinously high? Does compromise in this case lead to splitting the baby?
There is still the distinct possibility that what will emerge from Obama's common ground will be a bill that allows health costs to continue to skyrocket, that forces people to buy terribly overpriced insurance they can't afford, that leaves insurance companies essentially unaccountable, and that ultimately serves as a massive subsidy to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, with the bill going to our grandchildren. That's pretty dramatic stuff. Maybe worth a few minutes on CNN?
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