If you needed any more evidence that passions run high on health care and America’s partisan divide cuts deep, it came tonight. When was the last time you heard a member of Congress (Joe Wilson of S.C.) call the President a liar during a joint session address? (Rahm Emanuel has already approached the GOP Congressional leadership and demanded an apology. John McCain has said Wilson should apologize, too. And just moments ago, Wilson bowed to the inevitable and apologized). For that matter, when was the last time you heard a President use the word “lie” in a joint session address?
I’ve never seen President Obama so emotional during a major speech. He pulled heartstrings early and effectively with his description of how insurance companies deny coverage to desperately ill Americans.
His anger over the tone of the debate and the tactics used by his opponents was palpable. A few sentences from the end, he choked up a bit. No Mr. Spock tonight.
He also laid out his most comprehensive and detailed explanation — and defense — of his plan yet. The passages where Obama laid out his insurance reforms will likely be most popular with the public. Those where he called out his critics on death panels, Medicare cuts and big government were essential — but the fact that the President had to spend so much time on defense is a sign of how effective his opponents have been. As the President acknowledged, “confusion has reigned” in the health care debate. Confusion is the enemy of reform. Obama likely cleared up much of that confusion tonight, but did he shake the confidence of his opponents in Congress? No evidence yet of that.
Best evidence? That laugh when Obama said many details still have to be worked out.
There were no new “red lines” tonight. For now, the only bill Obama says he will veto is one that adds to the deficit.
(And, according to the CBO, that could apply to bills already passed by House Committees)
But there were some new ideas from the President designed to demonstrate his bipartisan bona-fides. He endorsed the “high risk” insurance pools endorsed by John McCain during the campaign, and taxing some high-priced insurance plans.
He also said that his Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius would implement state demonstration projects on malpractice reform first proposed but never implemented by Bush 43. To reinforce his determination to fight the deficit he outlined a “trigger” that would require the Administration to offer new spending cuts if promised savings don’t materialize. As described by Administration officials, the President would be required to come up with these savings in 2012 — before the Presidential election and before the health insurance exchange comes on line in 2013.
Even if Congressional Republicans find these moves unconvincing, Obama probably helped position himself back in the political center. More problematic for the President was his whole discussion of the public option. Because he couldn’t get Democrats to agree to an approach before the speech, he was forced to argue — simultaneously — that it was a good idea and not all that important. That’s a waste of precious time in a prime time address.
But it was necessary: because Obama can only unify Democrats at the end of this process if they feel their ideas got a fair shot at the beginning. And he will have to unify Democrats. Absent a dramatic and unforeseen shift, few if any Republicans will vote for the President’s plan. (In fact, it’s likely to happen only if Democrats demonstrate that they can’t be beat).
The President began to bring his party together tonight by laying out his plan with clarity, arguing for it with passion and pointing out the consequences of failure.
He also had some help — from Congressman Joe Wilson.
Watch my recap tonight with Charlie here:
- George Stephanopoulos