Line in the Sand or Squiggle in the Mud?

Tough challenges remain to getting the job done

By Roger Simon
|  Thursday, Sep 10, 2009  |  Updated 5:36 AM CDT
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The Obama Presidency in Photos

Did Obama's speech unite his own party? That was his true goal.

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The guy knows how to give a speech. Give him that.

Barack Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night was both an elegant celebration of the American character and a strong denunciation of our current inability in this country to “engage in a civil conversation.”

But will it really help him pass health care reform? Did it really draw any lines in the sand or just add a few more squiggles in the mud?

Most importantly, did the speech unite his own party? That was his true goal.

Although Obama said the door to his office “is always open” to Republicans, it is unlikely that many will walk through it. (Few will even bother to poke their heads in.)

For 46 minutes, cameras captured Republicans sitting on their hands, shaking their heads or playing with their BlackBerrys. At one point, Republican Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina was bad-mannered enough to shout, “You lie!” (If Democrats had shouted “you lie” every time they thought a Republican president had lied to them, Richard Nixon would still be speaking.)

A few things in the speech were new. A hint about limiting malpractice suits against doctors. A little more about how to pay for reform. (No new taxes on individuals, apparently, or at least none he mentioned.) But mostly it was a repackaging of what Obama had said before.

And when it came to the public option, the message was still the same: Obama likes the idea of a public option, but it is only a means to an end “and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.”

Triggers? Co-ops? All good. Let’s just get ’er done. That was his real message.

“I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last,” he said.

Get ’er done. And get ’er done now.

Why? Because the current system doesn’t work and it will only be worse in the future. “Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing,” Obama said and began a litany of gloom. “Our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it most. And more will die as a result. We know these things to be true.”

Find anything in there you like? But he has said that from the beginning: The status quo does not work, and so dramatic change is worth it, even though dramatic change can be scary.

What about the Democratic lawmakers who are worried about their reelection in 2010 if they vote for health care reform in 2009? Obama did not offer them dramatic new ideas or specifics. Instead, he offered them himself, his power to deliver a message and, he hopes, his ability to move the polls.

A popular president can give cover to legislators. They can hover around his flame for both light and protection.

But when the president’s poll numbers sink, that flame is dimmed and the cover is gone.
Obama’s poll numbers have been sinking, and what is worse, he has been in danger of getting shoved off center stage and out of the spotlight by those shouting about death panels and socialism.

Although Obama has the biggest megaphone in the world, he was getting drowned out these past few weeks. He was losing control of the message even within his own party. The public option, to him, has always been a minor part of a major bill.

 

But the very fact that Obama has been unable so far to keep the public option from dominating the debate is a sign of how difficult it is, even for a president, to control public conversation in a new media age.

He hopes his speech will help put that to rest, will at least unite his party in a flood of good feelings. At one point, he said, “While there remain some significant details to be ironed out …” and laughter from both Democrats and Republicans rang out in the chamber. Obama looked surprised. He is sure he will get ’er done.

To Obama, the glass is way more than half full. “There is agreement in this chamber on about 80 percent of what needs to be done,” he said Wednesday night.

And he may be right. But that last 20 percent is going to be wicked hard.

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