Policy Documents

The Speech Obama Didn't Give

January 28, 2010

President Barack Obama had to think, at some point during Wednesday's State of the Union remarks: "Just think of the speech I could've given."

If only the Democrats in Washington had done a few things differently -- if only they had adopted more modest goals, or not paused to wait in an attempt to achieve bipartisanship, or just scheduled their return to Washington on the week before the Massachusetts special election -- the speech President Obama could've presented would mark a triumph of a century of liberal thought about society and the way we care for each other. A new nationalized system of government-run health care would be a major step on the path toward the utopian aims of spread-the-wealth progressivism, an aim beloved since the days of Bray and Polanyi -- a mishmash of plans, ugly and clunky, but still, a plan.

Instead, those troublesome Massachusetts voters wrecked the whole thing, and a speech that should have been a soaring triumph was turned into a 70-minute Scolding of the Union.

The happiest listeners were those who tuned in to learn about what horrible things George W. Bush did in the last year -- at least they left those 70 minutes satisfied. As Clive Crook of The Atlantic has noted, Obama "followed James Carville's bad advice in Monday's Financial Times, dwelling at length on his poisoned inheritance. On CNN, Carville said the speech was wonderful."

Health care went unmentioned until the 53rd paragraph of the President's speech, and he offered little except one more urging to pass the legislation. Perhaps the truth is that he doesn't have a lot to say at this point -- given an opportunity to lead on health care reform, to set a definitive path in the wake of Scott Brown's election, he punted. If a popular president is unwilling to lead on a matter that holds such enormous ramifications for a litany of centrist Democrats in the Senate and House, it sends a signal to those members, and they are taking the cue:

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said health care reform “is on life support, unfortunately,” and the president should have been more specific with how Democrats should move forward.

“He should have been more clear, and I am hoping that in the next week or two he will because that is what it is going to take if it is at all possible to get it done," Landrieu told reporters. "Mailing in general suggestions, sending them over the transom, is not necessarily going to work.”

The president's criticism of the Senate in the speech was "a little strange, a little odd," Landrieu said.

"Moderate Senate Democrats, who give the Senate the 60 votes, come from states that have to appreciate a broad range of ideas," Landrieu said. For a president who ran on post-partisan platform, "it doesn't do a great service to then say everything the House caucus passes without Republican votes, the Senate should take. It is the reverse."

 

So where do we go next on health care?  The zombie House and Senate health care bills -- neither dead, nor alive -- would cost in excess of $2 trillion over the next decade, even as President Obama renewed his commitment to cut the deficit. His own CMS director has demonstrated that they would increase, not decrease, health care spending, and they would not improve the quality of care. Something originally conceived as a life preserver for small businesses is now a burdensome bill which would result in so many taxes, fines and mandates -- nearly all breaking the president's promises during the campaign, of course -- that it would stifle a recovery and threaten to unbalance an already unsteady economy.

This was, in many ways, Obama's malaise speech -- chiding a displeased nation for setting their expectations too high, and telling us we would need to do a lot of this "change" ourselves; blasting a Supreme Court for their recent decisions on campaign restrictions Obama glided past in his own multi-million dollar campaign for the White House; wagging his finger at Republicans who, now that they have a paper-thin one vote margin to block some of the president's plans, are apparently expected to govern as equals. If you're going to boil Obama's message last night down to one phrase, consider the slogan from one Homer Simpson of Springfield in his race for sanitation commissioner: "Can't Someone Else Do It?"

This was a State of the Union focused on trying to regain control of the narrative after a year wasted in an attempt to pass a health care bill few Americans support and even fewer understand -- not solving problems, and certainly not leading.

If only President Obama had a chance to give that victory speech. He is awfully good at those.