In a comprehensive speech before a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama laid out his plans for healthcare reform, dispelled myths about reform, and invoked the late Sen. Ted Kennedy to argue the morality of healthcare reform. The intention of this speech was to change the tone and focus of the reform discussion.
Obama used Kennedy to hammer home the moral argument, “I received one of those letters a few days ago. It was from our beloved friend and colleague, Ted Kennedy. He had written it back in May, shortly after he was told that his illness was terminal. He asked that it be delivered upon his death.”
The president continued, “In it, he spoke about what a happy time his last months were, thanks to the love and support of family and friends, his wife, Vicki, and his children, who are here tonight . And he expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform – “that great unfinished business of our society,” he called it – would finally pass. He repeated the truth that health care is decisive for our future prosperity, but he also reminded me that “it concerns more than material things.” “What we face,” he wrote, “is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”
He spoke about the large heartedness of Kennedy that was bigger than partisan politics, “That large-heartedness – that concern and regard for the plight of others – is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people’s shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgement that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.”
Obama pointed out that the same scare tactics that have been used in the healthcare debate have been used in the past, “This has always been the history of our progress. In 1933, when over half of our seniors could not support themselves and millions had seen their savings wiped away, there were those who argued that Social Security would lead to socialism. But the men and women of Congress stood fast, and we are all the better for it. In 1965, when some argued that Medicare represented a government takeover of health care, members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, did not back down. They joined together so that all of us could enter our golden years with some basic peace of mind.”
Obama called on Congress to dig deep, “You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter – that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.”
The nuts and bolts details of the speech were nothing new. This information has been out there for months. What was new was that the president finally made the moral argument for healthcare reform that many on the left have been begging for all summer. The speech itself was the standard Obama performance.
The president is much better on the campaign trail than he is in these formal appearances, but he did a good job of pulling it all together. The timing of this speech can be argued, as it seems like the kind of speech that should have been given before the final vote on the bill, not when Congress is still trying to put the bill together.
If you had a checklist for this speech, Obama hit the key points, universal coverage, mandate, public option, cost, myths, and the moral urgency of reform. It wasn’t a work of rhetorical beauty, but it was the kind of performance that was necessary in order to shift this debate, and get back in control of the issue. We will see in the coming days just how effective this speech was.
Full Text of Obama’s Speech