Dunsmore: Obama’s health care speech

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(HOST) President Barack Obama’s health care speech Wednesday night was received favorably by a majority of those who watched it. But, as commentator Barrie Dunsmore points out this morning, while Republicans remain solidly opposed – it’s the Democrats that he needed most to impress.

(DUNSMORE) For the record, I thought it was an excellent speech. President Obama, clearly and with passion, laid out the details of what he wants to see in a health care reform program. He was at times feisty and combative. Yet he was also visibly emotional as he read from a death-bed letter he had received from the late Senator Edward Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy wrote that health care was "…above all a moral issue; at stake are not just details of policy but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country."   

In one of those instant polls, CNN reported that two out of three Americans who were watching approved of Obama’s plans – which represented a fourteen point gain.  However, such polling may well reflect the fact that substantially more Democrats than Republicans tuned in to the speech. We know the Republican leadership was unmoved. They mostly sat on their hands looking disapprovingly; and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor could even be seen texting while Obama spoke.

Several Republican lawmakers booed Mr. Obama when he dismissed the notion that so-called death panels would deny care to the elderly. "It is a lie, plain and simple," the President stated emphatically. When he added that it was also not true the proposed plans would cover illegal immigrants, Congressman Joe Wilson from South Carolina yelled back, "You lie."

But Wilson and his Republicans may actually have been doing the President a favor. As the Washington Post’s television critic Tom Shales wrote, the President "…looked calm and rational though certainly assertive, while mob-like voices railed defiantly against him. …The cumulative effect of the divergent images carried the subliminal message: Democrats upbeat. Republicans downbeat. And uncivil."

Yet ultimately the future of health care rests with the Democrats themselves. They have the votes to pass it. But going into the speech they were divided over the "public option." The liberals in the House were saying they wouldn’t support any reform plan without a government-operated alternative – and more conservative Democratic Senators were countering that they would not vote for any plan if it contained such an option. The President explained that only a relatively small number of the uninsured would be eligible to join such a government plan – and that there may be other ways to address the problem of providing competition for the private insurance companies.

It will become clear only as the debate continues whether President Obama was able to square that circle. But Democrats would do well to remember two things. One: If again they fail to pass significant health care reform, their party will surely be punished by voters in future elections. Two: In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon, plagued by scandal, asked Senator Ted Kennedy to join with him in a major health care reform effort. At that time, Kennedy wanted a single payer, government run program; so he declined the offer. He would say in his final days, this was his greatest regret.

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