I don’t mean to pick on my friend E.J. Dionne twice in one week, but his column provides the perfect springboard for my evaluation of Barack Obama’s speech to the joint session of Congress last night. Earlier this week, in discussing Obama’s speech to schoolchildren, Dionne (incorrectly) accused Republicans of jumping to conclusions with no evidence whatsoever about the nationally-broadcast telecast. Today, Dionne leads off his column with this conclusion:
After a listless summer during which his opponents dominated the health-care debate, President Obama used a dramatic appearance before Congress on Wednesday to seize control of the autumn, the season of decision for the initiative he has turned into the central test of his presidency.
Did he! And when did Dionne write this conclusion that Obama seized control of the autumn — sometime in the dead of winter, and transported back through a time machine? Obama’s speech ended at about 9 pm Eastern time, and since this column is in the print edition, it had to have been cut pretty close to the midnight point where the Washington Post publishes its material on line. Not much time there for Dionne to gather evidence that Obama “seize[d] control of the autumn.”
We’re going to see a lot of media gushing over this speech, as we see with all of Obama’s speeches — the most important address, expertly delivered, historical, etc etc. Chris Matthews, last seen comparing Obama’s Reverend Wright speech (which got rendered inoperative less than four weeks later) to the Gettysburg Address, has probably already compared Obama to Cicero or Cato. No one doubts the President’s ability to deliver a speech, but was it the right speech?
Consider that the American public has listened intently to the debate all summer long, and has reacted to the proposals from Obama and the Democrats in Congress with increasing disgust and anger. Obama himself had already made a prime-time appearance six weeks ago with the White House press corps making his argument for ObamaCare in detail — dull, repetitive detail, as many noted at the time. Obama also made a number of town-hall appearances in which he tried to sell his plan by looking reasonable and bipartisan — and wound up losing 19 points on his approval ratings on health care in the six weeks of Congressional recess.
Obama needed a new argument. Instead of changing out his old slogans, Obama changed out his reasonableness and his veneer of bipartisanship for an ugly, partisan tone, accusing his opponents of lying and demanding an end to “bickering,” which Americans used to call “debate” and “dissent”. He again accused his opposition of not offering any ideas, when Congressional Republicans have a comprehensive reform bill in committee and had copies of it in the chamber when Obama gave his speech.
If Obama just intended to fire up his left wing, then this speech was a success. If he intended on selling ObamaCare to the majority of Americans who oppose it, Obama’s speech was an unmitigated disaster. He offered no new arguments, and explicitly derided people who didn’t buy them the first fifteen times he’s offered the old ones. He flat-out lied about illegal immigrants (although Rep. Joe Wilson was wrong to interrupt, which Wilson himself quickly admitted), as the Congressional Research Service concluded.
Finally, he wound up the speech by at first saying that no one wants big government, and then arguing for it in an odd tribute to Ted Kennedy. The point, he says, is not the size of government, but the purity of heart when building it, or something:
For some of Ted Kennedy’s critics, his brand of liberalism represented an affront to American liberty. In their mind, his passion for universal health care was nothing more than a passion for big government.
But those of us who knew Teddy and worked with him here – people of both parties – know that what drove him was something more. His friend, Orrin Hatch, knows that. They worked together to provide children with health insurance. His friend John McCain knows that. hey worked together on a Patient’s Bill of Rights. His friend Chuck Grassley knows that. They worked together to provide healthcare to children with disabilities.
On issues like these, Ted Kennedy’s passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick; and he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance; what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent – there is something that could make you better, but I just can’t afford it.
That large-heartedness – that concern and regard for the plight of others – is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people’s shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand.
The problem with big government isn’t that the initial intentions are bad or good, but that they’re irrelevant once government has power. The quality of the American character isn’t measured in the size of the government, but in the power of our voluntary kindness. It’s measured in places like St. Jude’s Hospital for children, which treats exactly the kind of children Obama mentions without a government program in place.
When government controls health-care choices, the programs won’t be run by kind-hearted saints but the kind of bureaucrats one meets at the DMV and the post office. And, of course, the IRS, which will be tasked with enforcement of the individual mandates that Obama seems to think are also part of the American character.
And while we know that Kennedy was an advocate for single-payer health care his entire life, the tribute to him seemed a little overdone, and predictably so. Did Ted Kennedy trust his last couple of years to Medicare, or did he use his own money to find the best doctors and treatments he could get? And while liberals love to lionize Kennedy, is the White House so tone-deaf as to miss the fact that Kennedy was not a popular figure outside of Massachusetts?
It did provide a fitting conclusion to an ugly, partisan, and completely counter-productive speech. Instead of offering something new, Obama dared those disaffected by ObamaCare to stop it. His only hope will be that people quickly forget it. Far from a reset, the speech sets the stage for even further disenchantment with this administration.