News & Politics

This Was the Obama We've Been Waiting for

At a joint session of Congress that rang like town halls, Obama comes out swinging for progressive ideals; yet his stance on the public option still is unclear.

In a speech before a joint session of Congress on the topic of health care reform, President Barack Obama Wednesday night seemed ready to rumble.

It was the Obama so many have been waiting for in this debate, one that has been more food fight than discourse during the dog days of August.

"Instead of honest debate," the president said, "we have seen scare tactics ... and out of this blizzard of charges and countercharges, confusion has reigned. Well, the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action."

The president's apparent resolve and authoritative style were back as he took on naysayers and liars about his plan to reform the health care system, yet he also put forward ideas he credited to his opponents, both Republican and Democrat, including "some of my opponents in both the primary and general election."

Obama faced a hall more raucous than Americans are accustomed to seeing at presidential events, especially joint sessions of Congress.

At times it seemed as if the tactics of disruption and distortion displayed in town hall meetings across America last month had infected the chamber, in spite of the decorous ceremony of the joint session.

The president was at times booed and jeered, and some Republicans held up some sort of document as an apparent attempt at protest. At one point, as the president sought to assure the American people that there were no provisions in his plan -- or any of the bills currently before Congress -- to provide government-sponsored health care to illegal immigrants, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted, "You lie!"

The president remained unruffled, sternly telling his opponents, later in the speech, "If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out."

In the speech itself, Obama "called out" several Republican claims, which he called bogus, and he directly confronted the "death-panel" fantasy advanced by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and a number of other Republicans.

"Such a charge would be laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple," Obama said.

Liberals and progressives found much to like in the president's address, most notably his inspiring call to the morality of health care reform, and his defense of liberal principles of governance. But on the most contentious issue within his own party -- a public health-insurance plan -- the president gave progressives half a loaf.

While expressing his support for a self-financed public option that would pay for itself via the premiums it collects, he indicated that it was not the end-all and be-all of health insurance reform. In other words, he will not go to the mat for it. He said:

It's worth noting that a strong majority of Americans still favor a public insurance option of the sort I've proposed tonight. But its impact shouldn't be exaggerated -- by the left, the right or the media. It is only one part of my plan and should not be used as a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles.
To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance-company abuses and make coverage affordable for those without it. The public option is only a means to that end -- and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.
And to my Republican friends, I say that rather than making wild claims about a government takeover of health care, we should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have.

That said, there's a chance that, as a result of this speech, he may avoid the mat and still get the public option. For at no time before has anyone offered so succinct and reassuring description of what that would look like and, for that, he just may generate the level of public support he needs for such a plan to get it passed:

Despite all this, the insurance companies and their allies don't like this idea. They argue that these private companies can't fairly compete with the government. And they'd be right if taxpayers were subsidizing this public insurance option. But they won't be.
I have insisted that like any private insurance company, the public insurance option would have to be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects. But by avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private companies by profits, excessive administrative costs and executive salaries, it could provide a good deal for consumers. It would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better, the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without, in any way, inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities

While holding a firm line on what he would not tolerate -- distortions, "the status quo," "kicking the can down the road," Obama also threw a little something to everybody, adopting ideas from friend and foe alike.

From former primary opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton (who is now secretary of state), the president took the idea of a mandate, a requirement that everyone buy health insurance. (Current proposals provide subsidies for those on the low end of the income scale.)

Because he sees his plan taking four years to implement, he appropriated Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain's idea, floated during the presidential campaign, of providing publicly financed catastrophic-care insurance to those who are frozen out of the current system by pre-existing conditions.

From the Bush administration, he's gleaning the idea of demonstration projects for malpractice reform, on which he said he is authorizing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to move forward "immediately."

The president sought to reassure senior citizens that their Medicare coverage would be protected, even as the Medicare system is reformed with an eye toward reducing costs through best practices and and waste reduction. And he promised that his plan would not add "one dime to the deficit."

Obama explained his plan's inclusion of health care exchanges, where the uninsured would band togther in regionally based groups to bargain for insurance rates comparable to those offered through employers. He reiterated the promise that his health-insurance reform would bar the exclusion of people from insurance plans for their "pre-existing conditions" and would outlaw the dropping of premium-payers from insurance plans simply because they got sick.

That was the workaday part of the speech. But where it really took off was when he called us to the better angels of our nature, making the moral case for health care reform with a little help, from beyond the grave, of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose widow, Vicki, sat next to first lady Michelle Obama. Kennedy's children were also in the chamber.

Obama read from a letter he received from Kennedy, D-Mass., just days ago, which Kennedy had arranged to have delivered to the president upon the senator's death. Kennedy had written the letter, Obama said, when the senator learned his brain cancer was terminal.

Quoting the letter, Obama said, " 'What we face ... is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.' "

Vice President Joe Biden, on the dais behind the president, wiped a tear from his eye.

From that notion of "the character of our country," Obama's speech took off.

"One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government. And figuring out the appropriate size and role of government has always been a source of rigorous, and sometimes angry, debate."

Then he bludgeoned some of his fiercest health care critics in the Senate -- where health care reform remains stalled -- with the memory of Kennedy.

Saying that many of Kennedy's critics mistook "his passion for universal health care was nothing more than a passion for big government," Obama declared that those who worked with Kennedy knew better. They knew that what drove Kennedy was "something more."

"His friend, Orrin Hatch, knows that," Obama said. "They worked together to provide children with health insurance."

Hatch, R-Utah, had signed a letter calling plans for a public option, "a federal government takeover of our health care system," a claim Obama handily dismantled in his speech.

"His friend John McCain knows that," Obama continued. "They worked together on a Patient's Bill of Rights."

McCain had lent credence to false claims by his former running mate, Palin, that Democratic health care reform proposals included "death panels" that would determine the expiration date of senior citizens.

"His friend Chuck Grassley knows that," Obama said, hitting the ringer. "They worked together to provide health care to children with disabilities."

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has been the foremost obstructionist in attempts to finalize a health care bill in the Senate Finance Committee and spent the summer attending conducting town hall meetings with a copy of Glenn Beck's book under his arm while claiming that Obama sought to "pull the plug on Grandma."

"[W]hen facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom," Obama continued, "and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter -- that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges, we lose something essential about ourselves."

And here's the kicker: "I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history's test. Because that is who we are. That is our calling. That is our character."

He's almost made a believer out of me. Now, about that public option, Mr. President ...

Adele M. Stan AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.