The last ten minutes of Barack Obama’s healthcare speech, invoking the legacy of Ted Kennedy and emphasizing concern for others as an essential part of "the American character," were powerful and affecting. Eschewing the professorial tone he has too often struck when discussing healthcare in recent months, Obama spoke instead about "large heartedness" and the "terror and helplessness" any parent would feel to have a sick child go without treatment because of money. He also said "the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little," and that "without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited." This was not FDR in 1936 (see the Michael Lind column to which my last post linked), but it was stated with conviction.
Nobody who listened to the speech – including many of the stone-faced Republicans in the audience – could come away doubting Obama is serious about passing major healthcare legislation. But will this legislation include a public option? The speech left me dubious. In this portion of his otherwise stirring address, Obama sounded notably vague, almost apologetic, telling the members of Congress it was "worth noting" that a majority of Americans support a public option (um, yeah, one would think so), and then chiding those on the left and right who have exaggerated its significance.
This was unfair to people on the left and the right, most of whom see the public option as significant (just as the healthcare industry does) for good reason. I suspect Obama’s words heartened a great many insurance executives, and that they will lead, down the road, to a compromise that marks an improvement over the current system but also a missed opportunity.