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By Josh Green
Obama’s had his share of big moments and speeches. But the stakes last night were beyond big. He was tasked with bringing back health care reform from the edge of a cliff using a lifeline made of gravitas and inspiration — and that was exactly what he did.
In this big moment, he wasn’t facing a cheering crowd at the convention in 2004. There was no deliriously happy Chicago throng celebrating with him as they did last November, and no inspired millions on the mall like last January. Those days seem very distant now, don’t they? Instead he faced 535 skeptical lawmakers ready to applaud wildly or sit on their hands, depending on where they were sitting in the room.
Obama’s speech was delivered with the president’s usual panache, but this time he avoided the wonkishness that he’s prone to. In simple, clear language he made his case for Congress to act on health care, urging people to understand that this reform is both a moral imperative and the cornerstone of “the character of our country.”
Whether you were an Obama fan or not before the speech, nobody can doubt that our president was on to a common thread — that we do want to move forward and not accept the status quo.
“… 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 question was not whether Obama’s speech moved the nation, because except for a few die-hard Obamans, he did.
The real question is whether he changed the political reality of his health care package. He certainly did not change minds in Congress. He certainly did not the change the mind of Joe Wilson, a Republican representative from South Carolina who astounded the entire gallery when he shouted “You lie!” at the president, interrupting his speech. Where did he think he was, Parliament?
Public opinion is rarely changed significantly by a single speech, but we’ll find out in the coming weeks whether Obama swayed that all important electoral middle. In a CNN poll immediately after the speech, 72 percent of respondents said the President had clearly stated his goals for health care (granted, Democrats in the sample outnumbered Republicans 45 percent to 18 percent). He got significant (10 points or more) positive bumps in approval when comparing polls taken before and after the speech.
The dynamics for this bill’s passage haven’t changed at all — the Senate Democratic leadership is dead set against a public option, while Nancy Pelosi is dead set for it. What has changed is that Obama has wrestled the bullhorn away from the death panelists, and told the country very clearly that much of the criticism they’re hearing is bunk — “That’s a lie, plain and simple.”
By confronting the wacky town hall goons and the kill-the-bill lawmakers at the same time, our president has reinvigorated those who believed in him last November but may have been wavering watching the Congressional circus lately.
He’s picked up a few new cards in his hand, and he’s ready to play them in the next couple months to follow through on the most important promise of his speech: “I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.”
Josh Green is a graduate student in political science at UC-Berkeley.
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