President Obama spoke loudly but carried a small stick Wednesday night, when he outlined what’s left of his healthcare reform agenda in a rare address to a joint session of the Congress.
Noting that “it has now been nearly a century since Theodore Roosevelt first called for healthcare reform,” the president told skeptical legislators from both sides of the political aisle. “I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.”
That was one of several takeaway lines of the night.
Another, delivered to members of the House and Senate who have just returned to Washington after an August of brutal town hall meetings, was: “The time for bickering has passed. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action. Now is the time when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together… Now is the time to deliver on healthcare.”
The president was equally muscular when it came to addressing “scary stories” and “bogus claims” about “death panels” and threats to Medicare that have been spun up by insurance industry front groups in order to thwart meaningful reform. Democrats loved it when Obama told the spin doctors — in the House and Senate Republican caucuses and their media echo chambers — that: “If you misrepresent what’s in the plan, we will call you out.”
But for all of its rhetorical flourishes, this was not a to-the-barricades address by a president who was prepared to battle not just the lies about his plan but the compromises that would make universal healthcare the dream deferred.
When it came to the task of offering the explanations, arguments and details that have been so hard to come by during a frustratingly unfocused debate about how to develop a functional healthcare system for a country where tens of millions of Americans have no insurance coverage and tens of millions more are underinsured, Obama remained disturbingly vague.
He restated his determination to prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to Americans with pre-existing conditions. He proposed portability and flexibility. He pledged to bar corporate caps on the amount of care that is provided the sick. And he decried insurance company abuses that even Republicans seemed to agree–at least if applause is any measure — are “heartbreaking” and “wrong.”