In Case You Missed Obama's Health Speech Saturday Afternoon

His address to the Democratic House members at the Capitol yesterday was another one very much worth watching. Of the 45-minute C-Span clip available here, the first portion is warmup and prelude by Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Stenny Hoyer. Obama takes the stage at time 15:00. At about time 20:00 he is mordant about the way the press has covered the issue, and at 23:20 we have an acid little line about "death panels." At roughly 30:00, he starts making the case about why the bill is still important, despite the things that aren't in it. At 31:50, a direct appeal to Democrats tempted to vote against it because of this or that shortfall. ("If you think that the system is working for ordinary Americans rather than for insurance companies, you should vote No on this bill.")

Real payoff is the "I know this is a tough vote" peroration, starting around time 35:00 (or, distilled version starting just before 38:00). The real point here is Obama's argument that even if the vote proves politically costly, the ultimate purpose of politics is to win office so as to do important things, rather than to avoid doing anything controversial or important so as to cling endlessly to office. Nice that it's done in a "we all understand the problem" way rather than with a "you are falling short" tone.  ("Every single one of you had that same kind of moment at the beginning of your careers.... Maybe that thing we started with has been lost. ")


What he says is also in keeping with the argument made by my Atlantic colleagues Ron Brownstein and Marc Ambinder, and which I discussed yesterday with Guy Raz of NPR: that Obama is doing what we always say we want but which politicians rarely can bring themselves to produce. He is spending political capital, trading popularity for a cause he believes in. And he is telling his party's House members that this is the duty to which they are called. Yes, it's easy for him to say that: he doesn't run for reelection for another few years, while the House members all face the voters this fall. But he says that whenever the voter-reckoning comes, the calculus should be the same. On this theme, it's also worth reading the recent WaPo essay by former Rep. Marjorie Margolies, who cast a "hard" vote for Bill Clinton's budget-balancing legislation in 1993 -- and was promptly turned out of office. "I voted my conscience, and it cost me," she wrote. "I am your worst-case scenario. And I'd do it all again."

Agree or disagree on the bill - and for the record, I support it, because it is a step toward the principle that for society's benefit and for individual protection, everyone should be insured -- Obama's presentation is a powerful piece of plainspoken rhetoric. Plus empathizing with an audience without condescending to it. And in case you're keeping track, not a damned teleprompter in sight.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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