Tonight we saw a brilliant performance from Barack Obama. It was Obama at his best, using his command of the English language to inspire and connect on a grand stage as only few politicians can. For sceptics like myself, he surprised. For his base, he reaffirmed. For his adversaries he reached out with an open hand but with the credible threat of a clenched fist. Obama delivered the goods.
And judging from the initial reactions of the American public, I am not alone in this assessment.
- Polls saw a monster jump of 14% in support for his plan.
- The progressives gave him a B.
- Andrew Sullivan called the speech masterful.
- FiveThirtyEight gave it a stand-up triple rating.
- James Fallows called it a first-rate speech.
Look, I have said I see this in stark terms. No other advanced society would permit tens of millions of its citizens to live without insurance against a basic 21st century need, which healthcare clearly is. No other advanced society sees thousands of its workers bankrupted due to health issues. Forget about the politics and posturing. This issue goes to the very core of who we are as a nation and our values as a society.
That was also the message Obama delivered.
Here are some of the basic points the President covered:
- Obama wants an evolutionary change, not a revolutionary one. The present basic healthcare system will remain. For the majority of Americans, this means there will be no change of doctor or insurance provider.
- He is strongly in favour of a public option to promote competition and reduce cost.
- Obama is advocating coverage mandates for everyone like for car insurance.
- He wants to ban pre-existing condition dropped coverage.
- The President wants to ban yearly and lifetime spend caps.
A few other thoughts:
- From my perspective, the most important thing Obama did was stay true to his conciliatory self while still somehow projecting the willingness to show the iron fist. He said “I will not waste time” with those playing political games. Misrepresent and we will call you out. My favourite line was when he called Sarah Palin out, saying “it is a lie plain and simple.” Apparently, Obama has learned when to talk tough.
- Obama did an excellent job of throwing enough red meat to progressives while covering all the bases on fiscal responsibility to make it difficult to criticize the outline he gave. He gave lip service to his change agent status by quipping “I will not accept the status quo.” I suspect the only potentially effective points of attack will be on the lack of specifics or on the feasibility of cost cuts.
- Obama’s line about illegal immigrants caused a bit of an uproar. I don’t have a view here, but it was one of the more negatively received lines – there were boos to the reaction. See the CNN coverage here.
- Obama threw a bone regarding malpractice insurance into the fray. Smart move. This was more of a political ploy than a plan to actually do anything, in my opinion. But, it did cover that flank, if just.
- The Republicans overreached. Sensing a populist backlash against Obama, they really miscalculated in the school lunch speech brouhaha. These missteps were furthered during the speech. The lack of civility by members of Congress was cringe-worthy. They often refused to stand and clap and one even heckled. This will cost the Republicans politically. See the picture on Andrew Sullivan’s site.
- The choice of venue was important. It certainly worked well for Obama, lending him a statesman-like aura and putting him in a large speaking venue where he excels. It was like a state of the union address with Congress rising to its feet and clapping in orchestrated approval. The contrast to the Republican rebuttal, done from some non-descript room, was enormous.
- The Republican rebuttal was flat. Charles Boustany spoke mostly about costs and the evils of government-run healthcare. It rang hollow because the President’s speech covered those bases fairly well. Boustany was at his best when he gave his four specific proposals on what to do to reform healthcare. He was at his worst in trying to label the President’s plan as government-run healthcare, a claim that seemed at odds with the facts. Yes, he was at a huge disadvantage because of venue. But I’m sorry, he was just not a good public speaker.
- There was some ‘class warfare’ rhetoric which I found distasteful and it also sounds like the plan will be paid for in part through taxes on the wealthy. Moreover, I am no liberal and the big defense of liberalism and big government at the end was a turn-off for me personally. Others will like him for taking a stand. It will certainly help brand him as far left of center.
- The Ted Kennedy story he told was a clear political prop that I felt was somewhat risky. But, it was generally well done. I liked the ” character of our country” phrase.
- The speech did go on for maybe 5 or 10 minutes too long.
Fallows sums it best:
There will come a time when Barack Obama cannot pull himself out of pinch with a big speech. And obviously we don’t know how this debate will turn out yet. But he hasn’t fallen short on the big-speech front yet. More tomorrow.
Let’s see what kind of legislation comes of this. If I get video, I will post. Feel free to comment.
Here is the video: