Obama's big speech

Once again, he rose to the occasion. My overall feeling: "This is the Obama who won the election. What a superb politician he is. Where has he been on this issue for the past six months?"

He set out to talk to the country over the heads of the politicians in front of him. About time: it is public opinion he needs to bring round if healthcare reform is to succeed. In this, the occasion both helped and hindered--helped, because it permitted a style of oratory that he does brilliantly, and which could seem false in a more modest, informal setting; hindered, on the other hand, because the audience kept interrupting, getting between Obama and the country, imposing itself on the event with its frequent, fatuous, pantomime ovations.

I thought it striking that the ovations ceased during a long, seemingly heartfelt, and very effective peroration: they stopped, it seemed to me, because the audience started listening. (Nancy Pelosi even stopped grinning.) Obama invoked Ted Kennedy as part of a renewed appeal for bipartisanship, a theme he is reluctant to abandon, and did it so cleverly that Republicans were folded in and obliged to respond.

He said that meeting the challenge of healthcare reform was a test of the nation's moral character--which, in my view, it is. I found his closing words genuinely affecting. My guess is that many other independents will feel the same way. (In this, an earlier moment of boorish heckling from one Republican also helped.) At last, Obama emphasised the "health security" benefits of reform for those who already have insurance: they will not lose it; their out-of-pocket expenses will be capped. This is at least as important as the benefits to the currently uninsured.

All in all, I think he made the case for reform about as well as it could be made.

But what difference is it going to make? I wrote down three questions before the speech. Did he take charge of the process? Did he explain what "the plan" actually is? Did he settle the row over the public option? He should have done all these things already. Tonight I thought he made some progress in each case, but without answering any of the questions definitively.

He talked about "the plan I'm announcing tonight"--seeming to assert his ownership, and at the same time declaring a new start for the process. Good. But there is still no detailed White House proposal, and the action now moves back to Congress. Obama's "plan", as he described it, was a recapitulation of bullet points from the proposals already in play. On substance, in other words, little was new.

One notable exception was the vague but nonetheless welcome promise to look at tort reform as an additional avenue of cost control. He put some stress on this as part of his outreach to Republicans, which was shrewd. Since this is something Republicans want, the offer makes it politically harder for the party to settle for its default mode of sullen unconstructive opposition. Curbs on medical malpractice litigation also happen to be good policy.

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