I listened to Obama's health care speech with a couple dozen die-hard supporters in Point Breeze last night. And it summed up what makes Obama so promising a politician ... and what makes me worry we're headed for disappointment.
It was a good speech, the last several minutes especially. I was glad to hear Obama make the moral case for healthcare (something I don't think Dems have done enough of), for one thing. And since I've long believed that the GOP is conducting a sinister plot to make us all stupid, it was heartening to see him raise the issue head-on:
[W]hen 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 ... at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.
By this point, Republicans had already helpfully demonstrated the scope of the problem when one of their number, Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina, shouted out "You lie!" (Politicians in both parties expressed their dismay, but it's worth noting that Wilson is a repeat offender: He once had to apologize for calling an Iraq War opponent "viscerally un-American.")
After the speech was over, though, the folks I was watching with -- who were gathered by Organizing for America, an outgrowth of Obama's presidential campaign -- got to listen to a conference call held by Obama political advisor David Plouffe. And that's when some misgivings set in.
As you'd expect, Plouffe was upbeat about the prospects for reform. He, and staffer Mitch Stewart, noted some pundits' assessment that despite all the town hall silliness of summer, most Americans still seem to support reform. He also noted that Democrats have been in this spot before: This time a year ago, he reminded us, a lot of Dems were freaking out over Sarah Palin and GOP attacks. Then, as now, there were people wondering why Obama didn't respond to those attacks. Why didn't he get more angry? But Obama "has an amazing ability to stay focused on the goal," Plouffe said -- and we should do the same.
What's more, Plouffe contended, things would get easier for those out in the trenches, trying to make the case for reform with friends and neighbors. Now that Obama had put concrete proposals out there, Plouffe maintained, "it's going to get a little easier."
But it's sort of a damning indictment to realize that, after all that's happened in recent months, Democratic partisans are only able NOW to start referring to an actual plan.
And while this speech may turn a corner, I'm still not sure I know what the president is after. The partisans I was watching the speech with cheered Obama's remarks supporting a "public option" ... but Obama didn't exactly say that he was going to insist that there be one. He was open to other alternatives as well. And Plouffe echoed that point repeatedly.
"A lot of people feel strongly about a public option," he said, but it was "just one part of health care reform." And while the "public option would be, potentially, part of that" health care package, "There's other options out there." About all Plouffe could guarantee was that a public option was "something that [Obama] is going to talk about in a favorable way."
I get what's going on here. Olympia Snowe, the moderate Republican Senator from Maine upon whom so many hopes seem to rely, has made clear her opposition to a public option. And maybe it's just being used as a bargaining chip -- something for Obama to trade for compromises elsewhere. The problem, though, is that for a lot of activists, the public option already was the compromise position. It's what they were willing to live with instead of getting a single-payer program.
Going into this speech, a lot of folks were worried that Obama was going to compromise on the compromises ... leaving us with a reform bill that was, well, compromised. For all the strengths of his speech last night, I can't see any reason why we shouldn't still feel that way.
Yes, the speech may be helpful. It laid out, clearly, what is and what is not on the table here, and that will be a huge boon to those who haven't been following the issue very closely. (A highlight was Obama's deft comparison between education and health-care: State-supported universities haven't put private colleges out of business, Obama noted -- so why should a state-supported insurance plan do in the private-sector giants?) It allowed the President to forcefully address misconceptions about the bill, and to appeal to our better nature. And of course, it was fun to watch Obama take Republicans to task for their bad behavior. Those were among the lines, in fact, which generated the most enthusiasm among the folks I watched the speech with.
But that's about style, not about content -- and Obama has always been good at calling for more honest, more thoughtful debate. Which is important. But once you establish a more civil discourse, you actually have to say something. And at this point, I'm not sure how much better off we are on that score.