A closing argument

A CLOSING ARGUMENT…. More than five months ago, just hours before the House would vote on health care reform, President Obama traveled to the Hill to speak directly to the entire Democratic caucus in a private meeting. It went pretty well — reports noted that lawmakers spontaneously erupted in a “fired up, ready to go” chant that could be heard from the hallway — and the bill passed.

Tomorrow, the entire House Democratic Caucus will hear directly from the president, this time at a White House meeting, scheduled for 4 p.m. — 22 hours before the likely vote.

And while we don’t know exactly what Obama will tell the House Dems, it’s probably a safe bet that we got a preview of the message this morning, when the president spoke at an event at George Mason University in Virginia.

We talked the other day about Obama’s habit of ignoring what’s on the teleprompter and just adlibbing what he wants to say. Greg Sargent noticed the same thing today, reporting that the president went “considerably off the script of his prepared remarks,” which is worth considering because “it demonstrates once again that in the final stretch of this fight, he managed to locate a voice, summoning a level of energy and emotion that by any measure had been badly lacking for much of the past year.”

For example, the speech as written didn’t include a reference to the Civil Rights Act, but Obama made the connection anyway. The text also didn’t include this concession: “As messy as this process is, as frustrating as this process is, as ugly as this process can be, when we have faced such decisions in our past, this nation, time and time again, has chosen to extend its promise to more of its people.”

In the larger context, the theme was hard to miss: the president was connecting this effort to the landmark progressive achievements of the 20th century, and how the policymakers of those eras had the courage not to back down in the face of hysterical criticism and unfounded fears. Those officials rose to the occasion, and now today’s leaders must do the same.

The message for lawmakers wasn’t subtle, and they should expect to hear it again tomorrow afternoon.

For those of you who can’t watch videos online, I’ve included a transcript of this portion of the speech below.

As transcribed by the White House:

“And in just a few days, a century-long struggle will culminate in a historic vote. (Applause.) We’ve had historic votes before. We had a historic vote to put Social Security in place to make sure that our elderly did not live out their golden years in poverty. We had a historic vote in civil rights to make sure that everybody was equal under the law. (Applause.) As messy as this process is, as frustrating as this process is, as ugly as this process can be, when we have faced such decisions in our past, this nation, time and time again, has chosen to extend its promise to more of its people. (Applause.)

“You know, the naysayers said that Social Security would lead to socialism. (Laughter.) But the men and women of Congress stood fast and created that program that lifted millions out of poverty. (Applause.)

“There were cynics that warned that Medicare would lead to a government takeover of our entire health care system, and that it didn’t have much support in the polls. But Democrats and Republicans refused to back down, and they made sure that our seniors had the health care that they needed and could have some basic peace of mind. (Applause.)

“So previous generations, those who came before us, made the decision that our seniors and our poor, through Medicaid, should not be forced to go without health care just because they couldn’t afford it. Today it falls to this generation to decide whether we will make that same promise to hardworking middle-class families and small businesses all across America, and to young Americans like yourselves who are just starting out. (Applause.)

“So here’s my bottom line. I know this has been a difficult journey. I know this will be a tough vote. I know that everybody is counting votes right now in Washington. But I also remember a quote I saw on a plaque in the White House the other day. It’s hanging in the same room where I demanded answers from insurance executives and just received a bunch of excuses. And it was a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, the person who first called for health care reform — that Republican — all those years ago. And it said, “Aggressively fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.”

“Now, I don’t know how passing health care will play politically — but I know it’s right. (Applause.) Teddy Roosevelt knew it was right. Harry Truman knew that it was right. Ted Kennedy knew it was right. (Applause.) And if you believe that it’s right, then you’ve got to help us finish this fight. You’ve got to stand with me just like you did three years ago and make some phone calls and knock on some doors, talk to your parents, talk to your friends. Do not quit, do not give up, we keep on going. (Applause.) We are going to get this done. We are going to make history. We are going to fix health care in America with your help. (Applause.)

“God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)”