What did Obama’s health care speech accomplish?

Posted on September 9, 2009

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obama congress hc

(Image credit: Sky News)

Speaking before a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama gave a much-hyped speech on health care reform, the transcript of which can be found here. He promised action, stating that the status quo is unacceptable, and spoke broadly about his goals of health care stability, coverage for those without insurance, and lowering of health care costs. He said his plan would require everyone to have health insurance (with fines to enforce compliance, no doubt) and expressed his unwavering support for some sort of public choice, whether it be a full-fledged public option or health care co-ops.

He spoke of consumer protections for those with insurance, and he spoke of the public option being self-reliant and relying only on premiums for sustainability. He said there’d be no funds for abortion (which FactCheck.org had previously found to be untrue), and no coverage for illegal aliens (to which Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “Liar!”) In short, if the speech were given in a vacuum, with none of the floated proposals and blowback from the last few months, you could believe that everything presented could never fail or have any shortcomings.

One of the immediate problems is while the speech is long on broad goals and mission statements, it’s short on the mechanistic details that would make them possible. A public option that’s sustainable on premiums alone? Weren’t Medicare and Social Security pitched to be sustainable at the time of their passage as well? And the claim that spending money on health care will lower costs isn’t logical when you think that the supposed savings by a decrease in pressure on Medicare and Medicaid will be just a shifting of dollars from one insurance program to another. One things can be counted on – any new program won’t be deficit-neutral as the President claims.

Really, what was new in this speech? I got no sense of any specifics and no major concessions to opponents – just “we need to pass this, so get onboard or shut up.” The President wanted to strike a civil tone but accused critics of distortion and scare tactics, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said health care protesters were Nazis with swastikas on their arms, sat calmly behind him, unblinking and blameless. And the President unmistakably used scare tactics himself while he claimed that if Congress did nothing, more people would die, more people would go bankrupt, more businesses will close and the deficit will grow. Whether you agree with those statements or not, the undeniable intent is to frighten people into action.

But the biggest stumbling block to the President’s speech is this: there is currently no one plan to improve upon. We continue to have a mishmash of ideas from House and Senate bills, and the stark fact is that the President can promise whatever the hell he wants, but it means nothing if it’s not incorporated into the bill.

Did the speech work? The press and the talking heads will undoubtedly proclaim it a smashing success – the only problem with such proclamations is that they’d be issued had Obama simply read from a phone book for 45 minutes. No doubt that Obama is an effective public speaker, but can he sway public opinion with no concrete ideas based simply on his oratory? The honeymoon is over, and the President has been over-exposed. There will be short-term bounce, but the reality on the ground still remains unchanged. And I’ll be very curious to see the ratings for the speech tonight. It may turn out that the nation tuned in breathlessly to see the President put forth a bold new vision – or it may be that most tuned out and watched something else instead.

In the end, it may be a polemically effective speech, but it’s hardly the game-changer that was advertised. The words of the President won’t change the minds of those with deep concerns about the current state of the health care reform debate. The devil will still be in the details, and apprehensions about those details may be momentarily forestalled, but not banished by this speech.

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Posted in: News, Politics