In this space last week, I doubted that an address trying to sell policy prescriptions for high insurance premiums and pre-existing conditions could really be the catalyst that fundamentally reconnects Obama with the American people — particularly following the bitter town hall protests of the last month.
I think President Obama's Wednesday night health care speech proves me wrong. But in the end, last night's televised appeal probably will be remembered as the moment Obama reclaimed his presidency. That's because while the substance of his remarks dealt with health care reform, the president used his oratory to transcend that single issue. The speech was really about how Obama will relate to loud, angry, and even misleading opposition whether the issue is health care today, or climate change or immigration reform tomorrow.
In short, Obama once again took charge, and in doing so reminded all who watched why we elected him in the first place. It was a welcome departure from his much more tepid performances in his own town hall meetings the last few weeks, in which he seemed captive to all of the minutiae of reform and ceding all of the passion to his opponents.
Last night, though, Obama showed that he gets it. He even began the speech by not even talking about health care. He started by talking about the ongoing recession and high unemployment. That's a tacit acknowledgement that the anger and anxiety that animated all of August's outraged health care reform protests don't really come from the health care issue, per se.
Rather, it comes from a widespread, free-floating angst as people worry the economy isn't improving. Health care reform opponents were simply clever in tapping into that worry and aiming it at health care reform as a target. Last night, though, Obama took on trying to calm that apprehension right at the outset by acknowledging things aren't all better but also reassuring us his eye is still very much on that ball.
Obama, too, demonstrated with some fervor and passion of his own that while he prefers conciliation and negotiation in good faith, he will not be held hostage to those who would rather play political games, saying, "I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. … Not this time. Not now." One can only hope and assume that warning will also apply when it comes time for Congress to pass his future reforms on other matters.
The same could be said of Obama's admonishment that lying about his proposals will not be tolerated; that he will "call out" those who do, now and later as well. Speaking of lying calls to mind Rep. Joe Wilson, the crude Republican who shouted "You lie!" at Obama in the midst of the president's speech. Wilson's outburst is just the latest in what really has been a long line of boorish, crass and really lowbred things reform opponents have done in the name of their cause: including hanging a congressman in effigy and bringing guns outside of Obama's events. As all of this loutishness has unfolded, I've often wondered just how much has to occur before a tipping point occurs. That is to say, how much bad behavior most Americans are willing to accept before they begin to see these opponents not as principled activists, but as unruly hyperpartisans. Hopefully, if we hadn't gotten there before, Wilson's tantrum has laid this bare.
The coming weeks will determine just how successful in finally bringing to fruition real health care reform Obama was last night. But win or lose on health care, Wednesday's speech showed our president is still very much in the game.