Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Turning Point for Obama?

For the most part, public sentiment regarding President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night regarding health care reform has been positive; many pundits and American citizens felt he had been more specific and forceful than at any other point in this at-times silly debate -- even if he didn't so as far as some progressives would've liked.

The President strongly supported the public option, but did not demand it. Unlike Bill Clinton, the last President to attempt health care reform and address a joint session of Congress about it, Obama did not wave around a pen threatening veto. While the lack of such histrionics likely upset some progressives, what Obama did do with this speech more than made up for it.

Obama made clear Wednesday night that while he would not draw a line in the sand with regards to the public option, he would only accept alternative ideas that made sense and were offered in good faith. He mentioned briefly the idea of non-profit co-ops, though it's worth noting he went much further with regards to explaining the public option and how it would benefit ordinary Americans.

The White House's website also makes the case for a public option, specifically mentioning it as a facet of the President's plan.

"Now, let me be clear," Obama said. "Let me be clear. (The public option) would only be an option for those who don't have insurance. No one would be forced to choose it, and it would not impact those of you who already have insurance. In fact, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, we believe that less than 5 percent of Americans would sign up."

Obama argued that the public option -- as part of an insurance exchange and in addition to other reforms, such as making it illegal for insurance companies to deny coverage based of pre-existing conditions and drop policies or water down coverage when people get sick -- would help keep costs down, since the not-for-profit program wouldn't have the unnecessary administrative costs and profit margins of the private companies.

It was the simplest, clearest defense of the public option I've yet heard -- even without the mandate that the final bill include one.

Obama made sure to note that "80 percent" of the issues up for discussion were widely agreed upon by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle -- the remaining 20 percent (mostly the public option and cost of the bill) was where the majority of consternation and outrage have originated. He implemented several Republican ideas -- including Sen. John McCain's proposal that until the insurance exchange was formed, uninsured Americans should have access to low-cost catostrophic care coverage.

He also reminded the likes of McCain, Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley that they had voted for health care reforms of a sort in the past. McCain once authored a Patients' Bill of Rights with the late Ted Kennedy, while Hatch helped Kennedy offer insurance for children, and Grassley helped Kennedy offer the same for children with disabilities.

In fact, for as effective as Obama was in laying out what he wanted in the bill -- and making the point that the bill would have to be deficit-neutral and add no new taxes to the middle class -- perhaps his greatest moment came at the close of the speech. Invoking Kennedy's name, Obama mentioned a letter the Senator had written back in May when it became clear to him that his brain tumor was terminal.

In the letter, Kennedy called health care a "moral issue," and stated that whether reform passed would determine who America was as a country, what statement the issue would make about the country's character. Obama didn't quite make the point that health care for all was a right (something Kennedy was famous for arguing), but he did frame the issue as a matter of moral importance, that we as a country have a moral imperative to provide every member of this country with quality, affordable health care that will be there when we all need it.

I dare the Blue Dogs and Republicans to continue railing against reform now that the issue has been framed in such a way. Now, anyone who opposes reform and supports the status quo is showing their true American character -- the one that is green and makes life really difficult for people who don't have it. I dare these lawmakers to look their constituents in the eye and explain why regulating insurance companies and making it illegal for them to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions is a bad thing.

Really, I dare them to do this.

The way Obama framed the issue, and responded like a reasonable adult addressing a room full of chilldren (ironic, considering he did exactly that the day before) are what made Wednesday night's speech so successful. The issue now is whether members of Congress will take the President's words and turn them into an actual bill that he can sign and present to the American people. I believe they will, especially since the President seems intent to become more involved in the process now.

I expect Obama to tug on a lot of shirt collars and hold a lot of meetings with lawmakers in the coming days and weeks. He hadn't really done that to this point, and as great as his speech was on Wednesday, it probably should've come sooner.

Then again, maybe Obama's strategy was to let August go nuts. Maybe he wanted the insurance companies and the Republicans to fight feverishly against reform, show how ignorant and crazy they were, so that when he swooped in and set everyone straight, the majority of reasonable Americans would be on his side. It seems like every time people have doubted Obama, he has turned around and done something to show just how determined and up to the challenge he was. He proved it in the Democratic primaries against Hillary Clinton, he proved it in the general election against McCain, and I think he proved it again on Wednesday.

In the end, though, pretty words won't mean anything if a strong reform bill doesn't pass. Obama, I think, realizes this -- which is why he insisted that he would continue to reach across to politicians of all colors, while simultaneously making it clear that he will have no more of the venomous lies that so dominated the last month.

He knows what the Republicans are doing, and he is watching. Even as they shout like town hall protestors in the halls of the House of Representatives, or text while the President is speaking or holding up signs and showing disgust and indignation on their faces. Even as they trot out a birther to give the Republican response, who inadvertently made Obama's points for him, the President has repeatedly tried to gain bipartisan support.

A worthless endeavor, I feel, given the Deomcrats' vast Congressional majorities, but if he's going to frame health care reform as a moral issue, it might just work.

Now, about this idea of individual mandates ...

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