Against all odds, with everything at stake, he did it again. Addressing Congress in a joint session, the second of his young presidency, President Obama on Wednesday placed himself in the first rank of American orators, and placed friends and foes alike on notice that his plan for health care reform in America would not be taking the expected, politically expedient U-turns away from the public option he’s long championed.
And Obama pulled off the tricky task of being both rhetorically eloquent and politically pragmatic, both wonkish and streetwise. In forty-five minutes, President Obama made clear his intent to advance health care reform in America, an issue that has plagued the nation for 100 years — from the era of Teddy Roosevelt to the era of Ted Kennedy.
If anyone questioned Obama’s spinal fortitude, If anyone doubted this president’s intention to follow through on a meaningful health-care reform package, they got the message from virtually the moment Obama started speaking. The first soundbite will be the one that rattles through history, whether Obama prevails or not.
“I’m not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.” There’s your throwdown declaration to obstructionist Republicans in the Senate. This wasn’t a line in the sand, it was a bulwark — the start of a reasoned, nuanced, passionate call for an overhaul of a long-damaged, antiquated, profit-driven health-care system; an appeal launched on several fronts, including as a practical necessity, a civic duty and a moral issue.
◊ ◊ ◊
“We are the only advanced democracy on Earth, the only wealthy nation that allows such hardships for millions of its people. There are now more than thirty million American citizens who cannot get coverage. In just a two-year period, one in every three Americans goes without health care coverage at some point. And every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage. In other words, it can happen to anyone.
“But the problem that plagues the health care system is not just a problem of the uninsured. Those who do have insurance have never had less security and stability than they do today. More and more Americans worry that if you move, lose your job, or change your job, you'll lose your health insurance too. ...
“One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn't reported gallstones that he didn't even know about. They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it. Another woman from Texas was about to get a double mastectomy when her insurance company canceled her policy because she forgot to declare a case of acne. By the time she had her insurance reinstated, her breast cancer more than doubled in size. That is heartbreaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America.”
◊ ◊ ◊
But Obama gets the raw numbers too. He was able tonight to drill into the arcana of the eventual cost of doing nothing to change health care. He offered an overview of the overall administration’s $900 billion plan: no changes in Medicaid or Medicare; no exclusions for pre-existing conditions; an insurance exchange program set to begin in 2013; a plan to help pay for expanding coverage by taxing insurance companies offering so-called Cadillac insurance plans for high-income earners; and an initiative to limit medical malpractice lawsuits.
“[O]ur health care system is placing an unsustainable burden on taxpayers,” the president said. “When health care costs grow at the rate they have, it puts greater pressure on programs like Medicare and Medicaid. If we do nothing to slow these skyrocketing costs, we will eventually be spending more on Medicare and Medicaid than every other government program combined.
Then, with a perfect distilling soundbite quote: “Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem. Nothing else even comes close.”
Obama was solid at working on the Republicans in the room, in ways that reveal an evolving savvy with merging the politics of Washington with the politics of Chicago. He wasn’t reluctant to go upside some heads, or to show a proven commonality with some in the Republican Party on health legislation in the past.
Obama said his was “a plan that incorporates ideas from many of the people in this room tonight - Democrats and Republicans. And I will continue to seek common ground in the weeks ahead. If you come to me with a serious set of proposals, I will be there to listen. My door is always open.
“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 improve it. I will not 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 the plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now."
“My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition. Unfortunately, in 34 states, 75 percent of the insurance market is controlled by five or fewer companies.”
Then: “In Alabama, almost 90 percent is controlled by just one company,” the president said in a clear shot at deep-red conservative Sen. Richard Shelby. “Without competition, the price of insurance goes up and the quality goes down.”
◊ ◊ ◊
At another point, in a masterful blend of politics and personal memorial, Obama connected conservative Sens. Orrin Hatch, Charles Grassley and John McCain to meaningful health reform as a colleague of Sen. Ted Kennedy, the ardent advocate of universal health care in America — once more advancing health care as an unassailable moral matter.
Recalling a letter from Kennedy in May, Obama said:
“[Kennedy] spoke about what a happy time his last months were, thanks to the love and support of family and friends, his wife, Vicki, and his children, who are here tonight . And he expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform — ‘that great unfinished business of our society,’ he called it — would finally pass. He repeated the truth that health care is decisive for our future prosperity, but he also reminded me that ‘it concerns more than material things.’ ‘What we face,’ he wrote, ‘is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.’
“I've thought about that phrase quite a bit in recent days — the character of our country. One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government. And figuring out the appropriate size and role of government has always been a source of rigorous and sometimes angry debate.
“For some of Ted Kennedy's critics, his brand of liberalism represented an affront to American liberty. In their mind, his passion for universal health care was nothing more than a passion for big government.
“But those of us who knew Teddy and worked with him here — people of both parties — know that what drove him was something more. His friend, Orrin Hatch, knows that. They worked together to provide children with health insurance. His friend John McCain knows that. They worked together on a Patient's Bill of Rights. His friend Chuck Grassley knows that. They worked together to provide health care to children with disabilities.”
“That large-heartedness, that concern and regard for the plight of others, is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people's shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The members of Congress assembled last night were a spirited bunch; at times Obama’s address elicited vocal reactions more frequently heard in a rhetorical scrum in the House of Commons. But leave it to the disloyal opposition to be the cockroach at the garden party. At one point, as Obama discounted rumors that health care reform would also benefit undocumented aliens, South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican, shouted “You lie!” at the president, arousing a chorus of boos. Wilson apologized before the night was over.
Such passions might have been expected, given the intensity of the debate. Wilson’s passionate outburst had its detractors on both sides of the aisle. More difficult for the opponents of the Obama plan to ignore will be everyday people like barkrudedog69, commenting on the address at The Huffington Post. His was the bipartisan spirit that could seize the high ground in the debate going forward:
“Step back and think about our goals in American. Not the goal of one party but of one people. Our goal is to build a better society together. We may not agree on many issues but that does not mean either party is less American.
“As an American
As a Republican
As a Husband
As a Father
As a Disabled Person....
I support what the President put forth to Congress in his address.”
Image credits: All still images from pool camera, except Joe Wilson: © 2009 Chip Somodoville/Getty Images.