OTHERS MORE knowledgeable than I about the mechanics of health care reform, like TNR‘s Jonathan Cohn, have already begun commenting on the details that Obama elevated in his Wednesday night speech. I want to say only a small thing about a very large thing: his spirit.
He sounded like a winner. Like all great preachers, he started methodically and built to crescendos. The Republican responder, Charles Boustany of Louisiana, sounded like a whiner, crying, Deficit, deficit, and government-run, government-run, and built toward nothing. Obama charged the Republicans with specific lies. He made the obligatory gestures toward bipartisanship, including the unexpected shout-out to John McCain, who had campaigned in favor of mandatory catastrophic insurance–and I don’t want to be cynical about those gestures, even though I think he’s naive about the other party’s intentions–but that’s not where his stresses fell. He was reminding the majority who voted for him why they did that. He was reminding independents that the reason why no progress has been made toward universality, mandates, and affordabiity is Republicans–as with 1935’s Social Security and 1965’s Medicare laws. He was reminding them, as well as the few rational Republicans left, that the insurance companies are not the glories of American value.
He did not sound like a patsy. He offered specific programs but the peroration was clear: he stood for values and national character. If he went too easy on the insurance companies for my taste–his audience could have used the information that Americans pay insurance companies twice as much as they pay doctors–he took a proper jab at Republicans (they know who they are) who make up the party of fear. You can say that he’s still not willing to talk to Americans straight about the need to limit high-tech medicine for the very old and very frail. Presidents won’t do that.
But he bet on the strength of the American character. It was his finest public moment since the Inaugural. I’m betting national decency wins.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and on the editorial board of Dissent. This article first appeared on TPM Cafe‘s Web site.