Obama delivers

OBAMA DELIVERS…. It’s impossible to say with certainty whether President Obama’s speech on health care reform last night will have the intended impact. Will intra-party differences between Democrats be resolved? Will public attitudes shift back in the White House’s direction? Did the speech help reframe the debate? We don’t yet know.

We do know, however, that the president did exactly what he needed to do, and delivered what was probably the best speech of his presidency.

Under the circumstances, it’s safe to assume Obama didn’t want to have to deliver this speech at all. Remember, the White House wanted the House and Senate to pass their respective bills in June. The president would have been just as happy if a national address before a joint session of Congress was entirely unnecessary.

But the summer was unkind to reform. As Obama explained last night, “Instead of honest debate, we have seen scare tactics…. Too many have used this as an opportunity to score short-term political points, even if it robs the country of our opportunity to solve a long-term challenge. And out of this blizzard of charges and counter-charges, confusion has reigned.”

So, the president set the record straight, and delivered on some specific benchmarks.

* Centrist: In reality, Democratic reform proposals are poised to be the biggest progressive victory on domestic policy in four decades, but last night, Obama deftly positioned his vision of reform as a centrist, pragmatic, middle-of-the-road approach. The president specifically rejected a “radical shift” that would “disrupt the health care most people currently have… I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn’t, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch.”

* Defining reform: What’s this initiative all about? Obama spelled it out in 39 words: “It will provide more security and stability to those who have health insurance. It will provide insurance to those who don’t. And it will slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government.”

* Defending government: The right has spent most of the year convincing the nation that anything related to government is, by definition, evil. I was delighted to see the president make the opposite case: “Our ability to stand in other people’s shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgement that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.”

* Explainer in Chief: I was glad to see Obama talk about mandates and the public option, but more important, I was thrilled to hear him explain them. These can be complicated concepts, and the president made the case clearly.

* Moral case: One area of criticism of late is that the White House hasn’t made the moral case for reform. Last night, Obama did just that, quoting Ted Kennedy: “What we face is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.” It was the start of a stirring last act.

* Historical context: The president was very effective in explaining that right-wing hysterics were wrong on Social Security, and wrong again on Medicare. But in the process, he wasn’t just dismissing the Tea Baggers, he was connecting his presidency to the progressive legacy.

Towards the very end of the speech, Obama struck a note of American optimism: “I still believe we can act even when it’s hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history’s test.”

The phrase wasn’t just about reform; it was about encouraging Americans to have faith in what’s possible, even in the face of trying circumstances. It was, in a way, a subtle request — we elected him to lead, he sees a path ahead, and with patience, he’ll try to take us where we need to go.

Americans, in other words, need to “still believe” in his presidency, too. After hearing his vision last night, I think he’s earned it.