In his high-stakes address to Congress last night, President Obama took on three interrelated tasks that he should have tackled long ago:
1. He framed universal health care as a compelling moral issue - just as providing seniors with a safety net via Social Security is a moral issue, just as providing seniors with health benefits via Medicare is a moral issue, just as providing poor people with health benefits via Medicaid is a moral issue.
2. He put strong emphasis on assuring the "haves" - the 180 million Americans who already have health insurance; and, most importantly, the haves who are also swing-voting centrist independents - that the sky would not fall on them if reform was enacted.
3. He finally called out the right-wing liars and demagogues, and stripped them down to their underwear.
As sheer pugilistic salesmanship, his speech was just what the doctor ordered; even the talking heads on Fox News graded him with a B+. But naturally this doesn't necessarily mean that Obama will be putting pen to paper and signing a sweeping health reform bill at year's end. He may have already ceded too much authority on this issue to the congressional barons of his own party. Dithering is a way of life on Capitol Hill, and, while Democratic lawmakers don't necessarily like it when a president of their own party tries to crack the whip, they are definitely inclined to achieve zip if that same president is overly laissez faire.
So the question now is whether Obama can knock heads and get the Democrats moving. While he took great pains to speak directly to the wary "haves" who were watching on TV, his prime targets were arguably his elected brethren in the chamber - the liberals, moderates, and Blue Dogs. They're the real players in this high-stakes game (as opposed to virtually all the Republicans, who have basically decided that destroying Obama politically is far more important than seeking to ensure that sick Americans won't be further abused by the insurance industry).
With the moderates and Blue Dogs in mind, Obama sought to recapture the center by stressing the broad-based "consumer protections" that would be featured in a substantive reform bill - namely, the provision that would make it illegal for insurance companies to deny coverage because of an applicant's pre-existing health status, and the provision that would bar companies from dropping the haves who get sick. Too often, those fundamental features of reform have gotten lost in the summer noise; those features, if enacted, would be an historic step toward social justice.
Obviously, as Obama noted, "there remain some significant details to be ironed out" - particularly with respect to how reform would be financed - and he surely disappointed liberal lawmakers by again refusing to categorically endorse the creation of a government insurance plan that could serve as an option for the have-nots. But by telling liberals that "the public option is only a means to (the) end, and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal" of covering more Americans, he signaled his intention to be seen as the problem-solving pragmatist - the adult in the debate, a centrist who is not beholden to his base.
Just as importantly, speaking to the entire Democratic contingent, he sought to stress the party heritage that they share - the notion that government, out of necessity, sometimes needs to step in, if only to ensure that the free market doesn't run off the rails. For instance, "the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little, that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited."
Obama reminded his party brethren that the wise use of government produced Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965 - both of which were vociferously opposed by the Republicans, naturally. Obama said only that "there were those who argued that Social Security would lead to socialism," but everybody knows who he was talking about. Obama said only that "in 1965, some argued that Medicare represented a government takeover of health care," but everybody knows who he was talking about.
In his view, he was talking about the people who were on the wrong side of history. Indeed, his basic speech message - his in-your-face message - was that the very same people are on the wrong side of history once again.
Clearly, one goal last night was to demonstrate to his own party that he can be pugilistic as well as professorial. Democrats need to know that he has a backbone, because, last month, he basically allowed the liars to disgorge their vomitus, with barely a corrective word. That changed last night, finally. He denounced "the bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost...the demagoguery and distortion," particularly the so-called death panel charge, which "would be laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible."
By the way, could Obama possibly be any luckier than to have, as his foil, the cranky conservatives who today constitute so much of the Republican party? They put on quite a show last night, demonstrating yet again why they have been driven to the margins of governance.
When Obama rightfully shot down the Palin-Grassley death panel canard as "a lie, pure and simple," there were scattered scornful rumblings. The Republicans in the chamber sat on their hands in cold silence, just as they had stayed silent for weeks as this preposterous falsehood was circulated nationwide to the ignorant and the credulous. But then came the piece de resistance, of course: the spectacle of Republican congressman Joe Wilson yelling out to his president, "You lie!" - his soul apparently having been captured by the town hall knuckle-draggers.
And what an irony it was. Obama had just attempted to put to rest the lie that health reform would insure illegal immigrants. Indeed, the only House bill that has been released in its entirety clearly states: "Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States." And the Senate Finance Committee's working draft plainly states: "No illegal immigrants will benefit from the health care tax credits." Nevertheless, Wilson morphed into a heckler, and called the truth-teller a liar. (Wilson has since apologized, but here's a question for you: Back in the day, if a Democratic congressman had ever heckled President Bush by yelling "you lie" on the House floor, and had subsequently sought to make amends with an apology, would the conservative media ever have forgiven him for showing such disrespect in the first place?)
Anyway, Obama could not possibly have dreamed of a better demonstration of the GOP's current attitude. Wilson's outburst merely added weight to the lines that Obama delivered minutes later: "I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it...If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out."
In other words, Obama now seems convinced (finally) that reaching out to the Republicans is largely a waste of time and effort, and that reform will happen only by bringing the Democrats together with a deal that could attract enough Senate Republicans (Olympia Snowe, for instance) to break a GOP filibuster and thus ensure passage. And if the Republicans again want to position themselves on the wrong side of history, so be it.
The big question is: Can health reform still happen? Yes, if only because the failure to pass anything would be a political disaster for the Democrats in 2010.
Either they hang together, or they will hang separately in the '10 congressional elections. Why? Because success in a mid-term election hinges on whether the party's base voters are sufficiently motivated to show up. If no health reform is enacted, the liberal base will stay home - just as they did in 1994 after the collapse of Bill Clinton's health care plan, thus paving the way for mammoth conservative gains and the ascent of Newt Gingrich to the House Speaker's chair.
So another big question is: Can liberal and conservative Democrats compromise effectively, and agree that, say, 65 percent of what they want is good enough to call an historic victory?
That's what Obama is looking for at this point. As Ted Kennedy always used to say, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."