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Obama’s long, forceful, and scolding speech to Congress fulfilled or exceeded most observers' expectations. Without breaking radically new policy ground, Obama delivered concessions to Republicans and progressive Democrats, while assertively distancing himself from the "partisan spectacle" that engulfed reform debate this summer. The majority of commentators have reacted positively, because he seems to have given a little bit to everybody open to convincing. He hit it out of the park, right?

Not quite. By riding the centrist track, Obama also disappointed left-leaning skeptics who wanted more proof that he'll stand by the public option, and Republican critics who disagree with the basic premise of reform. To some, he failed to nail all the missing details, and others say it was too focused on winning over Congress. But the ball seems to have returned to Obama's court, with momentum and goodwill gained on the left and center, and health care reform's direst opponents put temporarily in retreat.

In the end, how much does the speech matter? On this, pundits were less sanguine, arguing that while perceptions are important, the truly backbreaking labor of bringing Congress on board still lies ahead.


  • ‘Rooting Out Waste,’  says Dr. Peter Bach, in the New York Times.“If I am hearing the president right, part of his plan seems to be to let a commission actually directly implement those fee reductions that make sense, even if it will be politically unpopular to do so. That would be a good step, lest the Malthusian predictions come true.”
  • ‘Pleasant Surprise’ on Malpractice Reform, says Helen Darling in the New York Times “Since Democrats are usually highly resistant to even discussing tort reform, the fact that he raised it is good news. He was not very specific, but at least he acknowledged the problem and opened the door.”
  • An Assertion of Leadership, Adam Nagourney in the New York Times. “It was an attempt by this still new president to display his authority to a Congress that had begun to question his fortitude, to show that he was as strong a political leader as he was a political candidate and to show that he was not — to use the shorthand of the day — another Jimmy Carter: professorial, aloof, a micromanager who perhaps was not ready to be the nation’s chief executive.”
  • Image of a Crusader, says Tom Shales in the Washington Post. "He was positioning himself as the bright, ambitious young president up against the stodgy old defenders of a corrupt status quo. He was like a presidential version of Jefferson Smith attempting to survive the slings and arrows of crass politicians acting on orders from big business."
  • Best Speech in Decades, says Mike Lux in OpenLeft. "I have been listening closely to Presidential speeches for about 35 years now, have watched quite a few oldies but goodies from the past, have even contributed ideas to a fair share of speeches in the Clinton years, and I am sitting here thinking that was one of the very best Presidential speeches I have ever heard. JFK's inaugural and a couple of FDR's best are the only ones I can think of that moved me so much."
  • Back in Top Campaign Form, writes Noam Scheiber in The New Republic. "This was also as animated a speech as I've heard Obama give as president. On the campaign trail, he was great at talking over applause to reach a rhetorical crescendo. He did that nicely a couple times tonight, including during one of his take-away lines:  "Well the time for bickering is over.  The time for games has passed.  Now is the season for action."
  • Bad Theater for Republicans, observes Chris Cilizza, Washington Post. "The two most compelling pieces of audio-visual that came out of tonight's speech -- House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) checking his blackberry and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouting "you lie" at Obama -- don't work in Republicans' favor."
  • A Modest Step Forward, writes Ezra Klein in the Washington Post. "If Obama hasn't created the perfect plan, he's created something arguably more impressive: a plan that actually might pass."
  • An Appeal to the Center and Left, says Gerald Seib, Wall Street Journal. "For those in the center, Mr. Obama's speech described his plan as anything but radical...And for Democratic foot-soldiers, a more emotional rallying cry: 'I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now.' So begins the fall tightrope walk."
  • Well-Executed Triangulation, says  previously-skeptical Mickey Kaus at Slate. "Triangulation: Almost always works! Obama pushed off, most notably, against single payer but also against Dems who demand a public option. Didn't emphasize that the public option is itself a fairly centrist solution--as opposed to systems that would deny the private option."
  • Prudent and Centrist, writes Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight. "The bottom line: it was a well-delivered speech, and a very, very smart speech. It will remind people of what they liked about Obama. It won't do miracles. But it will increase, perhaps substantially, the odds of meaningful health care reform passing."
  • Put Opponents Off Balance, says Taegan Goddard, CQ Politics. "President Obama gave a very powerful speech making his case for health care reform. Watching Republicans confused as to whether they should stand and applaud various lines was telling. He had them completely off balance."
  • Elegantly Disposed of the Public Option, writes Douglas Schoen at Forbes. "The President understands that the real millstone around his neck is the Democratic left, and he has got to distance himself from them as artfully as he can."
  • Called ‘A Lie a Lie,’ says Paul Begala, Huffington Post. "The President shone a spotlight on the sin of rescission -- the process by which insurance companies protect their profits by dumping customers when they get sick."
  •  Mandatory Coverage—A Pleasant Surprise, Patrick Edaburn, The Moderate Voice. "I was very pleased to see him call for mandatory coverage for everyone, as he correctly pointed out it is not really ‘assuming the risk of no coverage’ if you know the government will pay for your health care should you need to have treatment."
  • Inspiring Moral Call, says Jill Lawrence, Politics Daily. "Veering from poetry to prose and back again, sometimes stern, sometimes earnest, always determined, Obama took ownership of what he called "my plan" and his place in nearly 100 years of presidential striving for reform."
  • Rebirth for Democrats, says Lane Wilson, FireDogLake. "What is absolutely certain is that the discussion over the past month has been hijacked by the delusional claims of people whose agenda consists of little more than scoring cheap political points."
  • Best Speech Since 2004, says Walter Shapiro, Politics Daily. "Obama delivered what I believe (as a long-ago presidential ghostwriter) was probably his best speech since the 2004 Convention keynote address that put this little-known Illinois state senator on the staircase to the stars."
  • Showed ‘Progressive Spine,' writes Katrina van Heuvel, The Nation. "In many ways, it was Obama's fullest, most eloquent and formal defense of liberalism and the clearest exposition of his view of government's role."
  • Something for Republicans, approves Mike Shedlock in the blog Mish. "The only standing ovation Obama received from the Republicans was on the issue of tort reform. That is the price Obama is willing to pay to get bipartisan support. All it takes is for a few senators to believe 'something is better than nothing'."
  • Wide Range of Targets, writes E.J. Dionne, Washington Post. "Obama's target audiences were diverse: liberal activists and members of Congress, moderate rank-and-file voters, and a few Republican senators -- above all Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, his most likely ally in a party that has broadly rejected his overtures."
  • Emotional Sans Schmaltz,’ says James Fallows, The Atlantic. "As he got ready for the end, I feared that he would tell the story of all the Lenny Skutnik figures in the First Lady's box. Instead, he told Ted Kennedy's story, with allusions only to Kennedy's Republican friends."
  • The Case for Collectivism, writes Publius, Obsidian Wings. “As I've said before, the true progressive moment in America can only come when we rehabilitate the idea of government -- when we finally escape the Reagan paradigm.  Obama pointed in that direction tonight.”
  • Forces Republicans' Hand, Mike Lillis, Washington Independent. "The challenge has been laid. It’s up to Congress — particularly Republicans — to decide whether to meet it."


  • Alienating and Preachy, writes Megan McArdle, The Atlantic. "I think the lecturing tone at the end is a mistake.  Obama's trying to evoke community and can-do spirit, but it comes off like having, well, an elite university professor lecture you on your moral obligation to provide health care to a third party."
  • No Crisis at All, says William Kristol, Washington Post. "But isn’t health care a crisis? No. Indeed, the president acknowledged it isn’t..."
  • Completely Predicable, says Michael Gerson, The Washington Post. "We heard the same approach, the same arguments and the same straw men, with the only major difference being a sharpened tone against opponents. It was as if Obama spent his summer vacation not in Martha’s Vineyard, but in a soundproof room."
  • ‘Panicky, High Pitched’ says Hugh Hewitt, Townhall. "President Obama's very big, incredibly important, game changing speech-to-end-all-speeches on health care cam across as panicky, too high pitched, and schoolyard bullyish."
  • ‘Slithering’ Toward Government Takeover, Ronald Bailey, Reason. "Medicare has not been a complete government takeover of health care yet, but already about 46 percent of all medical care expenses today are paid for by federal, state, and local governments, e.g., Medicare, Medicaid, and State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). What we've experienced is a creeping government takeover of health care of which Obama's "plan" can be seen as the next slither down that path."


  • ‘Reasonably Effective’ with Many Factual Holes, John, Powerline. "From a policy standpoint, there was nothing new in President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress tonight. It can only be assessed, therefore, in political terms. I read the transcript rather than watching it, but the speech struck me as reasonably effective."
  • Lingering Questions on Budget, Washington Post Editorial. "It is essential, in the coming weeks, that the president hew to his promise that whatever plan emerges won't make the country's dire fiscal situation even worse."
  • Over the Top on Bipartisanship, Kevin Drum, Mother Jones. "The relentless attempt to appear bipartisan was kind of grating.  I mean, how many Republicans did he end up namechecking by the time he was done?  Sheesh.  Still, he wasn't trying to please me, and I imagine this kind of stuff goes over pretty well with the average viewer."
  • Tense, ‘Brittle’ Atmosphere, Joshua Marshall, Talking Points Memo. "It went beyond the tension I've seen in other such speeches -- something typified by the Wilson outburst. And the uneven atmosphere was accentuated by the rather detailed and compartmentalized structure of the early parts of the speech."
  • Not Far Enough, Perry Margoles in New York Times. “Simply throwing government money at training more primary care physicians — and trying to attract some to practice in inner cities — will create false hopes unless health care reform also protects doctors against insurance abuses compromising their ability to protect their patients’ health”
  • ‘Much Work Remains,’ Dan Balz, Washington Post. "The reality is that the president faces near-universal opposition from the GOP, and there was little in the reaction Wednesday night to suggest any immediate change in that."
  • Didn’t Budge the Needle, Ryan Avent, The Economist. "I doubt he won over many converts. At least not in Congress, where the debate has become too polarised."
  • A Good Speech, But Only the Senate Matters, Jonathan Chait, The New Republic. "Now that I've gotten you to read this post on Obama's speech, I should say that i don't think it matters all that much. I've written criticially of this notion that health care is a drama revolving around Obama. It's not. The Senate is the key entity here."
  • Amid the Rest, a Rousing Defense of Liberalism, Hanna Rosin, Double X. "But then, at the end, came the rousing defense of liberalism I was waiting for. For a speech in which he was trying to forge a consensus this was a brave and risky move."
  • A Bit Wonky and Congress-Focused, Matthew Cooper, The Atlantic. "Too much in the room. I thought it was much more focused on the 535 elected officials in the room than any joint speech I'd seen. It kind of felt more like a Roosevelt Room talk than a speech to the country. A lot of process."
  • Some Fiction Mixed with Fact, David Herszenhorn, The New York Times. "For instance, the president said that 'if you are among the hundreds of millions of Americans who already have health insurance' through an employer or the government 'nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have.' That is technically true. But there is a real possibility that existing policies could change as a result of the legislation."
  • Giving Too Much Away for Nothing, BooMan, Booman Tribune. "It looks like he thinks the sweet middle spot is to make progressives cave on a public option from day one and make the centrists cave on not having any option at all. He can get a worthwhile bill out of this, but just barely."
  • More Waffling, Peter Suderman, Reason. "Despite what Jon Cohn says, there just wasn't much news. As expected, Obama waffled on the public plan in the exact same way he's been waffling for months."
  • Nothing Changes, Lee Siegel, The Daily Beast. "Nothing is going to change. The fight will resume, the abusive tactics will continue, the fur will fly—and one way or another, probably procedurally, Obama and most of the Democrats will ram the plan through."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.