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Can Obama’s Speech Save Health Care Reform?

September 3, 2009

ObamaCOngressAugust 2009, was a difficult month for President Obama. On the heals of the public relations debacle that was the Skip Gates Beer Summit, Obama seeks to push forward a domestic policy that has been the bane of Democratic administrations going back almost 20 years. Health Care Reform presents a treacherous path for Obama, who once marshaled approval numbers FDR would have envied, but now finds it difficult to keep both Independents and the base of his party in his corner. At a time when the President attempts to find his way through this most difficult political agenda, his inability to present a clear Health Care plan to the American public has cost him two things needed by a President: time and political capital.

In an attempt to leverage  his most valuable political asset: his profound communication skills; Obama is planning to speak before a joint session of Congress to make his case for the urgency of Health Care Reform. As stated in The Politico:

“….if soaring oratory has often been Obama’s saving grace, the Health Care Reform address he’s scheduled to deliver to a joint session of Congress next week is his riskiest effort to date – a high-reward gamble with significant potential downsides.

“This speech is different, it’s coming much later in the game at a more difficult time than if he’d made it earlier,” warns Princeton University politics professor Julian Zelizer.

“But the downside of making a big speech — saying this is the fight of the year – is if that you just amplify the expectations you’re going to get it done,” Zelizer added.”

Clearly the risks of this speech are great. Addressing both houses of Congress requires Obama to lay out a health care plan in clear terms that will allow little equivocation. Thus far, the biggest problem the President has had is explaining which plan he actually favors and intends to sign. Moreover, Obama will have to inform the public of the things he is willing to give up. When the liberal base of his party is making it clear that the Public Health Care Option–which is actually a mild level of reform in comparison to the proposals being tossed about earlier like single payer Health Care–is crucial to any acceptable reform, Obama risks alienating a substantial portion of his most loyal supporters if he gives in to the immense pressure being applied by those on his political right. Furthermore, when Obama has some in his own party who will stop at nothing to protect the interests of the Health Care lobby, the dedication of the Democratic Party on this issue comes in to question.

Many blame Obama’s attempts at bi-partisanship for being one of the obstacles to passing meaningful reform. With a 60 seat majority in the Senate, and a significant majority in the House of Representatives, if bi-partisanship simply means dealing with total obstructionists in the Republican Party, the perception will be that Obama is giving up the core principles of his political base out of a lack of conviction for Health Care Reform in general. As stated in Salon.com:

“If President Obama expects Congress to pass a healthcare reform bill worth signing, he’d better grasp that “bipartisanship” is a means, not an end. After eight years of cheering themselves hoarse over one catastrophic Bush blunder after another, Republicans will start dealing with reality only when they’re afraid not to. Right now, it’s their talk-radio/Fox News-hypnotized base that’s got GOP congressmen running scared.”

In the end, what Obama needs to save Health Care Reform from total failure, or politically emasculating levels of compromise, is the sheer force of will to apply pressure to his own political party in Congress. Even a gifted orator like Barack Obama will need more than lofty rhetoric to fight the entrenched financial interests of insurance and pharmaceutical companies that will be staring him in the face while he addresses the same Congress that is loaded with campaign contributions from those opposed to reform. But one thing is clear, when the well being of over 50 million Americans without Health Care is at stake, Obama’s speech is one example where talk clearly cannot be cheap.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2009 10:56 am

    If anyone can change the conversation with a single speech it’s our brilliant POTUS. Armed with the knowledge that we elected him to make these big changes, and healthcare reform was one of the most important ones, I believe he’ll quiet the racket from the right,(it’s only noise afer all) and get a good bill passed.

  2. September 3, 2009 1:49 pm

    Meh, I’m skeptical. Like Lawrence O’Donnell pointed out last night on Rachel Maddow – “speeches don’t drive legislation.” A good speech might scratch the surface but I really hope the Obama Administration has something else up their sleeve in addition to next week’s address. I wrote a blog post about it (click on my name).

    Twitter/taralconley

  3. September 8, 2009 8:07 pm

    I agree with everything you’ve said here, but I always assume that I’m wrong when I don’t completely agree with what Obama’s doing. Every time during the campaign when I’d want him to be more agressive, in retrospect, his more measured approach turned out to be a winning one. I do think he can be sure he’ll lose some of the left’s support if he compromises away the Public Option. The left has already compromised, and we don’t really understand why, watching Single Payer slip away before the real negotiating even began. Of course, where are we going to go? We don’t even stand up to the right wing crazies. He knows we’ll forgive him anything.

    Enjoyed our little Mad Men back and forth on Twitter. Of course you’re right. I could be completely wrong, but I think they’re saving all that turmoil for next season, expecting this one to end with JFK’s death. I’m glad to have found your blog.

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