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Exceeding Expectations

I have been a bit outspoken in arguing that the vast expectations building up around the president’s health care reform speech tonight were unreasonable, and unnecessary. Congress is closer to enactment of legislation that it’s been all year, or at any time since 1994, and his job tonight was to “reboot” the debate by rebutting the lies that have been circulating about reform, and restating the basic case for action this year. 

The president did that abundantly. But he also did some other important things. 

His smackdown of lies about health reform (“That is a lie” was a refreshing high point) was deftly combined with shout outs to individual Republicans who have contributed decent ideas in the past, and with a specific pledge to begin action on the pet rock of conservative health care policy, medical malpractice reform. He also bluntly called out Republicans for their incredible hypocrisy in posing as the saviors of Medicare, even as they embrace proposals to privatize it. This will give Republicans a lot to cope with in the days ahead.

He made the moral case for genuinely universal health care, and explained the whole competitive system more clearly than any politician has done, while refusing to make the “public option” a litmus test, treating it as a “means, not an end,” which is exactly how he needed to frame it. 

He got wonky now and then, but not as much as he did in his last effort on this subject, the presidential press conference. 

Most importantly, he presented a vision of the big themes of health reform that is consistent with what’s happening in the House, what’s likely to happen in the Senate, and what might ultimately emerge from a conference committee. In other words, it was a keeper. 

Many observers will focus on the style rather than the substance of the speech: the president was obviously passionate as well as wonky, and very emotional in his wind-up tribute to the late Senator Kennedy. Even though I didn’t think coming in that he had to move public opinion, he may have actually done that. But if nothing else, he’s set the stage for positive action in Congress, laid down the markers he needed to lay down, and in general, regained some serious momentum for health care reform.