How do you assess President Obama's speech tonight?
You can look at it as a blueprint--and try to decide whether Obama's health care plan makes sense. I think it does, although, to be fair, I've thought that all along.
You can judge it as a political exercise. Did it help Obama's cause or hurt it? My colleague Jon Chait is skeptical, arguing that speeches don't really move public opinion. Then again, the opinions Obama needs to change were the ones from people sitting in the House of Representatives, listening to him. And, if my colleague Suzy Khimm is right, he may have succeeded there.
But there's a third way to think about the speech. You can see if was about something more than health care reform--specifically, whether it was an effort to say something broader, about how our society is organized and how we might be able to change it.
I think it was, if you listened long enough. And I liked what I heard, even if Obama said it in his typically nuanced way.
The critical passage came at the end, after Obama was done laying out all of the problems with American health care and after he was done explaining, or trying to explain, how his health care plan would solve those problems.
That's when he turned a bit more pensive and wistful--you could see this was the part of the speech he liked best--and started sounding a bit more like a preacher than a lawyer.
He invoked the spirit of Ted Kennedy, reminding people of Kennedy's determination to help the disadvantaged and marginalized. He conjured up the examples of Medicare and Social Security, noting the tough battles waged on behalf of each. And then he made his argument:
our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that 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.
It's a careful statement, deferential to critics in the way Obama typically it is. But it's also a pretty clear defense of government--at a time when defending government is pretty controversial.
We saw that in August, when town hall meetings dredged up some pretty primal feelings. The protesters showing up at these events weren't simply angry about health reform. They were angry about every government program since the New Deal. Most Americans don't see things quite that way; Medicare and Social Security remain incredibly popular. But government remains unpopular in the abstract, as it has been at least since the time of Ronald Reagan.
With these final passages, I think, Obama was trying to shift that mindset--to remind people that government is already a part of our lives, and a force for good, in ways that are entirely consistent with basic notions of citizenship and shared responsibility.
To be sure, none of this will affect the outcome of the health care reform debate. But if Obama can convince Americans that govenrment works--an effort that will require action, yes, but also some words--it might shape debates in the future.