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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama Turns Corner in Health Address

This item by J.P. Green was originally published on September 10, 2009.
I watched the President’s address on a jumbotron screen at a rally in the MLK National Historic Site in Atlanta. The rally and viewing, which were put together by Organizing for America, featured some of the better local agitators, including the state AFL-CIO president, the pastor of King’s church, a firebrand state senator, a couple of people who had been badly burned by insurance companies and OFA leaders, all of whom stoked the crowd leading up to the President’s address.
About 300-350 people attended, maybe 75-80 percent African Americans, plus a subtantial number of people with disabilities of all races. These were not just Obamaphiles, but people who felt strongly about health reform, and, moving around in the crowd, I heard pieces of quite a few health care horror stories. The event seems to have been designed mostly for the local TV cameras, which is understandible, since the tube still rules in the battle for hearts and minds.
Predictably enough, the crowd cheered the President’s stronger statements, and booed lustiily when the camera panned to Rep. Boehner and other GOP stiffs. I imagine the scene was replicated in cities across the country. I wondered what political moderates viewing the speech thought about the stolid Republicans, who have offered no reform proposals of their own thus far. I especially like how Robert Creamer puts it in his HuffPo post, that the heckling S.C. Rep. Joe Wilson is “the poster child for the new Republican Party.”
As for President Obama’s address (transcript here) , I thought he scored key points with impressive brevity. Never did I feel, “this is too wonky,” which has been an issue with other health care reform advocates. I liked the way he directly addressed the lies and distortions foisted by Republican fear-mongers. His tone was a little sharp. But there is really no way to make nice when debunking some of the nastier allegations they have smeared on his reform proposals. He unsheathed a few good zingers, such as the reference to the monstrous deficit he inherited, but wisely kept them to a minimum. Better to let the glowering Republicans marinate in bitterness on national TV, and they obliged.
President Obama endorsed the public option, but he kept an escape hatch open, saying he would consider alternatives. There was only a vague reference to what has elsewhere been called the “trigger mechanism” that would make the public option available. Even less was said about the possibility of taxing health care benefits. Those who were looking for heightened clarity on these controversial issues in the Presidents’ speech were probably disappointed. He tossed out a bit of an olive branch to the Republicans, in the form of a hint that some kind of tort reform should be part of the enacted legislation, which may be small comfort to them, but it’s more conciliatory than anything they have offered.
I expect that the President’s approval ratings will improve, as they generally do after a televised address. But I do think he needs to do more, perhaps in a warmer format, such as a series of televised “fireside chats,” as has been suggested. The President’s address was a pretty good beginning, especially if he will follow it with more visible, assertive leadership.
Among progressives, the reaction has been more favorable than not. Open Left‘s David Sirota and Mike Lux heard different speeches, with Lux giving Obama’s address a rave review and Sirota a pan. E. J. Dionne, Jr. noted a positive transformation in his WaPo column:

It seemed as if a politician who had been channeling the detached and cerebral Adlai Stevenson had discovered a new role model in the fighting Harry Truman. For the cause of health-care reform, it was about time.

And that’s all to the good.

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