The Note: Joe Wilson’s War — Team Obama finds a new enemy — and, perhaps, new momentum

By Caitlin Taylor

Sep 10, 2009 8:31am

By RICK KLEIN It really wasn’t the speech that was promised. It didn’t make the obstacles fall away. It may not change a vote. But when President Obama outlined his health care plans Wednesday night — and when the emotions of the summer’s town halls spilled into a Joint Session of Congress — the White House may have gotten the new start on health care it’s been after these many weeks. The president was bold, feisty, direct — and, at times, sharply partisan. And while most of his opponents behaved themselves, the only one we’re talking about the next day most certainly did not. This was a speech about details, but it was also the most forceful moral case the president has made for health care reform — capped, with a flourish, by the emotional letter Sen. Ted Kennedy sent the president from his deathbed. The president was reaching for the broad center. Yet if health care reform is to pass with any kind of scope, it’s going to be with a united Democratic Party. And with one unusual and misguided outburst from a House Republican, the deep Democratic divisions seemed to fade away. (Remember when the news out of the speech was going to be on the public option?) The White House knows there won’t be many moments as critical as this one. Democrats, for the moment, are pulling in the same direction — potentially helped along by the legislative process, too, with the Senate Finance Committee finally closing in on a bill. President Obama has always been at his best when he’s got an enemy to face down. He found one on Wednesday. “The battle is more than a test for Obama. It represents a challenge to his party, and the degree to which Democrats recognize that truth will determine the fate of health-care legislation this year,” Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. “Democrats have said throughout the summer that failure is not an option. Now Obama must persuade them to act in their collective interest, rather than their individual interest.”   “No Mr. Spock tonight,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos writes. “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.”  “It was the kind of performance that supporters of expanded health care coverage and new insurance rules have said they hoped to hear from a president who has up to now ceded control of the details to Congress,” Lisa Wangsness and Susan Milligan write in The Boston Globe.   ”At times it was almost like the president were a principal and Congress a bunch of unruly school kids,” ABC’s Jake Tapper said on “Good Morning America” Thursday. “Democrats were happy Mr. Obama was starting to lead,” The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman and Janet Adamy report.  Said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.: “We have been on defensive in August; today, in September, we go on offensive.” Vice President Joe Biden, to ABC’s Diane Sawyer on “GMA” Thursday: “The president did do it. He re-centered the debate. . . . I don’t know whether he got the Republicans or not, but look — I’m confident that he has a clear majority of the House and the Senate for reform.” (On Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst: “I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed for a chamber and a Congress I love,” Biden said. “I thought it demeaned the institution.”) House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., on “GMA”: “I don’t know if the vice president’s numbers are correct. . . . We went last night looking for some specifics, and a lot of what I heard has been heard before. I do think though the president did leave open the door for Republicans to bring our ideas forward.” Momentum time: The president speaks again on health reform at 10:15 am ET, followed by a Cabinet meeting (and an evening reception welcoming the Pittsburgh Penguins). As for the substance: The president made a series of significant concessions — on medical malpractice reform, on high-risk insurance pools, on the individual mandate, and, more quietly, on the public option. There was much he couldn’t say: that the public option is probably out; that he can’t guarantee anyone’s coverage won’t change; that if his initiative passes, it will do so on one of those classic party-line votes — the result of the same kind of politics the president once vowed to eradicate. Beyond that, Wednesday’s speech was an extraordinary piece of political theater — with jabs from both sides, and surreal breaches in decorum that highlight the raw emotions in play. (We all remember Bill Clinton’s props — the plastic card, the veto pen — from 1993. It was the other side that needed props — their own bills, even a sign around a neck — this time.) “Democrats gave Obama frequent standing ovations and Republicans at times murmured unhappily and held aloft copies of a Republican-sponsored healthcare bill. One Republican lawmaker shouted ‘you lie’ when Obama said his plan would not pay for healthcare for illegal immigrants. Lawmakers laughed openly when Obama said ‘there remain some significant details to be ironed out,’ ” per Reuters’ John Whitesides.  If you didn’t think the fight was joined . . . “A little-known South Carolina Republican may have done more than the president’s combative speech to unify besieged Democrats around health care reform,” per Politico’s Glenn Thrush. “The night’s defining moment — which Democrats hope to transform into a turning point — came when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted ‘You lie!’ as Obama claimed his plan wouldn’t offer free care to illegal immigrants.”  “The nation’s rapidly deteriorating discourse hit yet another low,” The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank writes. “While the majority of both parties’ lawmakers behaved as adults, the insolence by House Republicans stole the show.”  “The incident shocked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, whose mouth dropped open as she turned toward the Republican side of the chamber. In video images, Mrs. Pelosi appeared to whisper Mr. Wilson’s name to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who sat beside her behind the president,” Christina Bellantoni reports in the Washington Times. (A DCCC official tells ABC News: “In the eight hours since Republican Congressman Joe Wilson’s outburst on the House floor his Democratic opponent, former-Marine Rob Miller, has received nearly 3,000 individual grassroots contributions raising approximately $100,000.”) “His eruption — in response to Mr. Obama’s statement that Democratic health proposals would not cover illegal immigrants — stunned members of both parties in the House chamber,” The New York Times’ Carl Hulse reports.   “No president has ever been treated like that. Ever,” said White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Rep. Wilson’s statement (updated to reflect the apology he made through Emanuel after the speech): “This evening I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the President’s remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill.  While I disagree with the President’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the President for this lack of civility.” South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Carol Fowler: “Once again a South Carolina Republican has embarrassed our state. . . . Joe Wilson is a poor example of a statesman and an American.” Politifact.com: “Joe Wilson of South Carolina said Obama lied, but he didn’t.”  (For fun on Thursday — track the debate over changes to Wilson’s Wikipedia page.)  Paging Sarah Palin: “GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine), Robert Bennett (Utah) and Judd Gregg (N.H.) stood up and clapped when Obama dismissed the suggestion that Democratic healthcare reform would lead to ‘panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens,’ ” The Hill’s Walter Alarkon reports.  Snowe-watching: “Obama last night offered enticements that could draw Snowe’s support,” per Bloomberg’s Heidi Przybyla. “Along with his willingness to compromise on the public option and to embrace a national insurance exchange, he also said he would be willing to study plans to lower health-care costs by curbing medical malpractice suits, which Snowe and many Republicans support.”  You didn’t see a message here, did you? “With expectations high for him to deliver more specifics, Obama said the plan he is proposing would cost about $900 billion over 10 years, which he noted was less than the money spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and less than the Bush tax cuts,” ABC’s Karen Travers, Sunlen Miller, and Jake Tapper report.  The snap-poll: “Two out of three Americans who watched President Barack Obama’s health care reform speech Wednesday night favor his health care plans — a 14-point gain among speech-watchers, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation national poll of people who tuned into Obama’s address Wednesday night to a joint session of Congress.” Caveat: “The audience for the speech appears to be more Democratic than the U.S. population as a whole.”  The tightrope: “With one hand, he was trying to reassure Americans in the political center, who are scared by, but not actually opposed to, changing the health-care system. With the other, he was trying to motivate his party’s activists, who have the passion to drive a bill through Congress — but who also happen to want the kinds of big changes that scare those centrists,” Gerald F. Seib writes in his Wall Street Journal column.  Time’s Karen Tumulty: “Within the House Chamber, he has provided the guidance that lawmakers have been begging for. But the real question is this: Has Obama provided the reassurance it will take to bring back the rest of the country?”  “After a summer marked by partisan fighting, Obama cast himself as a voice of reason, urging lawmakers to set aside their differences,” Christi Parsons, James Oliphant and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times.  “The speech was a magnificent balancing act, with Obama looking for the deal, telling the public that he’s not going to sit around and let Congress do nothing,” the Chicago Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet writes.  Did he lose something — maybe something that had to be lost? “In a recognition of the current political atmosphere, Mr. Obama used his speech to ease away from what had been another defining aspect of his candidacy: the promise to transcend the partisanship in Washington,” Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times. “Now, with polls suggesting that all that is beginning to fade, and with Republicans regrouping, he is faced with a need to show that the leadership strengths he displayed as a candidate can be transferred to the office of the presidency.”  “Obama knows there is no chance of having a truly two-party approach to health care reform, and only a slim chance of dragging more than two or three Republicans aboard a Democratic bill,” the AP’s Ron Fournier writes. “But he also knows — his pollsters surely have told him — that the public craves at least the appearance of bipartisanship.”  “With flourish, President Obama threw the public option under the bus tonight. It was the choice of a practical politician,” ABC’s Sam Donaldson writes for The Daily Beast. “There will be health-care reform this year in some form, though President Obama sounded a tactical retreat on some of his once-ambitious ideas. He will take what he can get.”  The AP’s Jennifer Loven: “It was vintage Obama, the political realist who knows it’s not worth going to the mat for something when the votes aren’t going to be there. It was Obama the conciliator, using soaring rhetoric to try to get warring sides to come together around common sense. And it was Obama the ever-willing negotiator, unfazed by abandoning many specifics on the road to a larger goal.”  Time’s Joe Klein: “I suspect the speech did its job. Congress will pass some form of health-care reform this year, probably something very close to what the President proposed. But it will not end the public malignancy that has attended this debate and threatens the democratic fabric of our nation.”  “By joining specifics, a powerful moral argument and an unapologetic defense of government’s role in promoting social justice, the president sought to rescue the health-care debate from the mire of a congressional system that has encouraged delay and obstruction,” E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his column.  The underpinnings: “If health-care reform goes down to defeat this time around, it will not be because Obama failed to find the poetry to put a polish on the policy,” Walter Shapiro writes for Politics Daily.  Nate Silver, at FiveThirtyEight.com: “Lies were called out as lies. The Republicans, who seemed to lack an understanding of the theatrics in the room, were at several points made to look petty and stupid. And Obama made the moral case for health care reform, something many liberals — including yours truly — have been urging him to do for a long time.”  “The tone is pretty striking,” writes The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn. “Obama reaches out to Republicans in several places. But he also comes down hard — very hard — on opponents who are merely out to defeat reform.”  The Washington Post editorial board wanted more details: “He chose again to duck the biggest dispute of all: whether the new insurance exchange must contain a government-run ‘public option.’ . . . Perhaps the president’s advisers made the right political calculation in determining that Wednesday night was not the time to embrace a particular alternative, such as nonprofit cooperatives or a trigger under which a plan would be created only if private insurers do not reduce premium costs to a certain level. But this laissez-faire strategy guarantees that the rather peripheral debate over the public option will continue to dominate the health-care discussion.”  New ad up Thursday from Americans United for Change — a five-figure buy on DC cable that tugs the heartstrings hard: “Doctors said a liver transplant could save Nataline Sarkisyan’s life. . . . This year Cigna CEO Ed Hanway will retire with a $73 million golden parachute. Seventy-three million dollars. That’s 292 liver transplants.”  Battle ahead — from the Christian Broadcasting Network: “Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak tells the Beltway Buzz he’s ‘confident’ he has the votes to block the rule that allows H.R. 3200 onto the floor for debate. . . . As co-chair of the House Pro-Life Caucus, the Democrat wants Speaker Nancy Pelosi to allow an up or down vote on the Hyde Amendment.  That’s an amendment Democrats and Republicans have historically added to legislation that deals with health care funding.  It basically prohibits taxpayer dollars from being used to pay for abortions.” Coming Thursday: The Council of Economic Advisers submits its first quarterly to Congress on the economic impacts of the Recovery Act. In Massachusetts, moving toward an interim solution: “Senator John F. Kerry joined dozens of residents, public officials, and labor representatives yesterday in urging state lawmakers to give Governor Deval Patrick the power to appoint an interim senator to fill Edward M. Kennedy’s seat for five months,” Stephanie Ebbert reports in The Boston Globe. Imagine the ads in this one… “Former Bush Chief of Staff Andy Card is ‘seriously considering’ a bid for the open Massachusetts Senate seat, according to a close friend and adviser,” per Politico’s Jonathan Martin. “Card is meeting Wednesday night with Bay State Republicans at their regular committee meeting in suburban Boston, said Ron Kaufman, Massachusetts Republican committeeman and a longtime associate of the former top Bush aide.” 
The Kicker: “While I will not see the victory, I was able to look forward and know that we will – yes, we will – fulfill the promise of health care in America as a right and not a privilege.” — Ted Kennedy, in his May 2009 letter to President Obama, released by the White House in conjunction with the president’s speech Wednesday night.  “I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that maybe Congressman Wilson is not going to be with us on this one.” — White House senior adviser David Axelrod, after the speech.
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