Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Initial Reaction to President Obama's Health Care Address to Congress

President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress this evening in a nationally televised address on the topic of health care reform. I decided to tune into NBC's coverage of the address which was hosted by Brian Williams and featured commentary from Kelly O'Donnell, Host of Meet the Press David Gregory, and NBC political analyst Chuck Todd.

I tuned prior to the speech when Kelly O'Donnell was reporting that Sen. Olympia Snow (R-ME) has a direct line to the President and that she has encouraged him to drop the public option from his proposal from health care reform. Brian Williams followed up by putting the historical nature of Obama's spech into a weird context. Williams compared the historical moment to President Bush addressing a joint session of Congress after the attacks of September 11 and to President Johnson addressing Congress after the assassination of President Kennedy. While the issue of reforming health care is an important issue, putting President Obama's speech into this context seemed like a really odd comparison for Williams to make.

After Chuck Todd made some of his typical observations from inside the beltway about Obama needing to create "political space" for Democrats, Obama entered and gave a speech that packed more punch than I had anticipated. Prior to the speech, it was known that Obama was going to reveal some details on where he stands on health care reform, but Obama's tone (while measured during some moments) was at times stern and drew some interesting responses from the Congressmen in attendance.

The President started out with a statement that his Administration did not come to Washington to simply fix problems, but to "build a future". He launched into historical references where past Presidents that have attempted to reform health care and made note of Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) and his efforts at reforming health care by introducing the same reform bill at the beginning of each session of Congress.

Obama went on to outline the problem of America being the "only advanced Democracy" and "only wealthy nation" to force the hardship of lack of affordable health care on its citizens. Obama then spoke to advocates of a single-payer health care system and those who advocate for the elimination of employee provided health insurance. Obama lumped both groups into the same category and said that either of these plans would be too much of a radical shift for those who already have insurance plans. Obama said that it is his wish to build on the parts of the current system that work and to fix the parts that don't.

The President then outlined his plan which he stated would provide "security and stability" to those who already have insurance, provide insurance for those who currently don't, and slow the costs of health care for all involved. Obama outlined the basic tenants of his plan in which he stated that those who already have insurance and are happy with it, can keep it and that a new "Insurance Exchange" will be created over the next four years to provide incentives to insurance companies to compete in providing Americans with health insurance at lower costs.

Obama also spoke of providing tax credits to those who can still not afford insurance plans and Obama gave his support to a public option that would be available to compete with the insurance companies. Obama stressed that this public option, while important, should not be overblown by the left, the right, or the media because it is simply one portion of what is being proposed.

Obama moved on to address the misrepresentations that have circulated at many town hall meetings and by many members of Congress. Obama called the claims that the government would form "death panels" a "lie, plain and simple". He also said that no federal dollars would be used to fund abortions and that in no part of the bill does it say that illegal immigrants will be given health care. As Obama stated this last point, you could hear rumblings on the floor of the chamber and you could hear Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) shout out either "that's a lie" or "you lie" (I have seen both reported). I can't recall another moment where a member of Congress shouted out that the President was a liar during a joint session of Congress though I do find it a fitting representation of some of the behavior that some of the Republicans and some of the attendees of town hall meetings have engaged in during the month of August. I am sure that interviews with Rep. Wilson will be numerous tomorrow and I wonder how he will defend his outburst considering that the facts are not on his side.

Obama finished by quoting portions of a letter that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) wrote back in May and Obama paid tribute to Kennedy's life-long work on the issue of health care reform. I thought this moment was fitting and it also allowed for Obama to cite the bipartisan work that Kennedy had engaged in with John McCain, Charles Grassley, and Orin Hatch while highlighting his own wish for bipartisan work on this bill. NBC's Political Analyst Chuck Todd seemed to miss this moment as in his post-speech analysis he stated that Obama had only mentioned two Republicans during his speech - President Bush and John McCain.

The Republican response, given by Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA), was short and can be summarized by Boustany's statement that he had hoped the President would announce that he would scrap the current reform plans and start all over again. He also stated that this reform was nothing more than a "government run" proposal. Super.

While I thought Obama's speech was a good one (while surprising in its tone at times), I am skeptical to learn more of the details of his plan. Certainly I agree that the system needs to be reformed and that health care costs are out of control, that is not in dispute. It is the details of how serious the President is about fighting for the public option and how much the Conservative Democrats will be able to control the debate that is in dispute. It is also worthy of note that the ridiculous claims that we have seen some Republicans advance, are probably not going away any time soon. It will be interesting to see if this continued approach will result in stalling the legislation or will be successful in convincing Republicans to vote against any type of legislative reform.

This battle still has a long way to go and I will be posting further analysis and observations about this debate as we continue to move forward.

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