THE STASH SEPTEMBER 9, 2009
This was the best speech I've heard Barack Obama give as president--possibly the best since January of 2008. Unlike his inaugural address, or even his convention speech, this one really soared and inspired by the end--a bit counterintuitively for a health care speech. I thought the invocation of Ted Kennedy was pitch perfect: not tacky or maudlin and certainly not partisan (hence the allusions to Kennedy's friends Orrin Hatch, John McCain and Chuck Grassley). Obama managed to depict Kennedy as a completely ecumenical figure ("Ted Kennedy’s passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of ... the experience of having two children stricken with cancer."). And then, by segueing from Kennedy into a pragmatic defense of liberalism ("hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play"), he managed to depict liberalism as a completely ecumenical worldview. That, too, was right out of Obama's greatest campaign hits. (See here, for example.)
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."
A couple more quick thoughts:
1.) The distillation of the proposal itself was very solid: "It will provide more security and stability to those who have health insurance. It will provide insurance to those who don’t. And it will slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government. " Not quite bumper-sticker length, but as close as a Democratic health plan is going to come, I think.
2.) The rhetorical case for expanding health coverage involved a very deft bait-and-switch. In a nutshell: If you don't have health care, we'll help you get it by creating a new insurance exchange. This is how employees of large companies and members of Congress get insurance, and ordinary Americans should have the same opportunity. Which is to say, Obama started off with a semi-controversial substantive goal (health care for those who lack it), then shifted to an uncontroversial procedural goal (you should be able to get your health care delivered the same way Congress people do). In the course of making this shift, he elided the original question of whether we should cover the uninsured. Kudos to the speechwriter who came up with it. (Really.)
3.) The line about the Medicare trust fund was also very savvy. It reminded me of Clinton's "Save Social Security first" mantra from his 1998 State of the Union address (which, for those who don't remember, prevented Republicans from spending the surplus on tax cuts for the wealthy):
More than four decades ago, this nation stood up for the principle that after a lifetime of hard work, our seniors should not be left to struggle with a pile of medical bills in their later years. That is how Medicare was born. And it remains a sacred trust that must be passed down from one generation to the next. That is why not a dollar of the Medicare trust fund will be used to pay for this plan [emphasis added].
Of course, unless I'm missing something, this promise is essentially meaningless--the trust fund begins running a deficit in 2017 according to the latest trustees' report. So the question isn't whether we'll raid the Medicare trust fund, but what else we're going to raid to shore up Medicare. But it's an evocative line--as if there's a big pile of cash locked in some vault with seniors' names on it--that sounded pretty damn reassuring. Another nice speechwriting touch.