|Obama’s speech aimed to forge bipartisan support for healthcare reforms [EPA]|
Barack Obama needed to show some backbone in his speech on healthcare reform to a joint session of congress.
Normally, the president is the calm voice of sweet reason, no matter what the subject. But on Wednesday, Obama became a stern parent issuing a warning to unruly kids.
“The time for bickering is over,” Obama told the legislators. “The time for games has passed.”
It is possible that the Obama girls, Malia and Sasha, who seem exceptionally well behaved, have heard that tone of voice once or twice while quarrelling in the back seat of the family sedan or dawdling before bedtime.
But it is a side of Obama that the public – and congress – has barely seen until now.
Preliminary signs are that Obama’s speech was a success. A snap poll conducted by CNN showed that 77 per cent of people who watched the speech came away with a positive impression; 67 per cent approved of the healthcare plan he outlined; and 75 per cent predicted that congress will pass most of his proposals.
But the speech was about more than healthcare. It was an effort to re-establish Obama’s leadership and authority, amid public discontent and polls showing the president’s approval falling steeply.
Weeks of negative media coverage of raucous town-hall meetings and a seemingly well-organised right-wing campaign containing misrepresentations, half-truths and outright falsehoods about the reform plan have dented Obama’s popularity.
“I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than to improve it … If you misrepresent what’s in this plan, we will call you out”
Barack Obama, US president
Failure to enact health reform would leave Obama in the political equivalent of an intensive care ward.
Seriously weakened, he would have no more political capital to expend on difficult issues such as the Middle East peace process, the war in Afghanistan, and climate change legislation.
Democratic leaders, who had begun to doubt Obama’s resolve, seemed reassured that the president had recovered some ground.
“He did exactly what he needed to do to calm their fears,” Jim Clyburn, a senior House Democrat, told me after the speech.
“I’m confident the president will sign a bill this year,” Nancy Pelosi, the house speaker, said on Thursday.
Senate democrats are moving ahead with a key bill on healthcare. There is a chance that one or two Republican senators might go along with democrats on a compromise, but most Republicans have their heels firmly dug in against Obama’s reform plans.
“There was nothing new in the president’s speech,” John Boehner, Republican House leader, said.
Change in tone
But whatever the politicians say about the content of Obama’s speech to congress, there is something new in the president’s tone. Obama is fighting back.
“I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than to improve it,” he said. “If you misrepresent what’s in this plan, we will call you out.”
|The issue of healthcare reform has proved divisive in the US [AFP]|
To press his case for healthcare reform even further, he has scheduled several events around the country over the next several days.
The US media focused less on Obama’s words than on a rare breach of congressional protocol during the speech.
A hitherto obscure Republican congressman named Joe Wilson blurted out “You lie!” after Obama denied that he wanted to provide government insurance for illegal immigrants.
Unlike rowdy parliamentary sessions in other nations, heckling is almost unheard of in the US. Democrats booed Wilson, and he fled the chamber promptly once Obama finished his speech.
The boorish Wilson was perhaps channelling the spirit of another South Carolinian, Preston Brooks. An ardent supporter of slavery, Brooks attacked Charles Sumner, the abolitionist Massachusetts senator, with a wooden club on the senate floor in 1856.
Brooks said he wanted to avenge an insult to his state that Sumner had made in a speech about slavery. Sumner was severely injured in the savage assault but survived to become one of the most influential politicians in the reconstruction period following the Civil War.
Brooks, on the other hand, died ignominiously less than a year later of the croup.
On Thursday, sweating profusely and hyperventilating, Wilson appeared before a knot of reporters and said he was sorry for his outburst.
Obama accepted the apology, saying: “I’m a big believer that we all make mistakes.” But the president can’t afford to make any more mistakes of his own.
His speech appears to have restored his authority, but the healthcare battle has shown that Obama faces determined, aggressive opponents who will fight him on every issue – at every step along the way.