The President's speech on Wednesday night was supposed to be his moment to take back the debate from the crazies and ignite those who support his agenda for progressive change. The worry, as Maureen Dowd again put it earlier this week, is that "the president is getting to be seen as an easy mark." The real story, however, is becoming ever more clear, and that is that Obama is not a progressive who is being rolled by his opponents but rather that he is an even worse example of a center-right faux progressive than Bill Clinton ever was.
I sampled some of the responses to Obama's speech on the Huffington Post, a reliably partisan Democratic source. Paul Begala, a former Clinton advisor, was delighted, titling his post "Why I Loved Obama's Health Care Speech." It's true that, from a purely partisan standpoint, Obama's speech should make Democrats happy. He increased the likelihood that he would get a "win" on the issue of health care, he made the Republicans look ridiculous (but not nearly as ridiculous as they make themselves look), and he sounded politically tough. According to Begala, the speech "intimidated Republicans."
As nearly everyone noticed, however, Obama did not actually take a stand on anything other than the least controversial issues in the debate. To some, this is all to the good. Jacob Heilbrunn, another HuffPost blogger, celebrated Obama's clever centrism, comparing it to the President's refusal to be too liberal in the stimulus package. "Recall that both the Republican right and progressives chastised Obama then for either doing too much or not enough. They were wrong. The economy stabilized -- and Obama gets the credit for making the right call." If you measure yourself by whether you can find people to your right and left who are angry with you -- and you're willing to declare victory on the economy in the second inning of the game -- Obama's approach is for you.
My feelings were best captured by David Sirota, who found the speech "disappointing." His list of reasons begins with the most important: "Why do Republican presidents and politicians never bash 'The Right,' but President Obama uses a joint session speech to bash 'The Left?'" One has to laugh even imagining Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush giving a speech in which they scorned their base; but it is hard to recall a time when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were not at work distancing themselves from their supposed base of liberals and progressives. Sirota argues: "Though he didn't draw a direct equivalence, he implied there was one between the progressive push for single payer and the ultra-conservative push to destroy the entire health care system. Sick." Indeed. Even now, Obama praises Chuck Grassley and John McCain, and he talks proudly about how much he is keeping the insurance companies' gravy train running on schedule.
Readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of the Public Option. Even so, my opposition was based on a strategy in which Obama would trade a fatally flawed new government insurance plan for robust regulation and required local competition among private insurers. Instead, Obama has made it clear that the Public Option is at best something that he would approve if it happens to be in the bill that lands on his desk, with no concessions extracted from the Public Option's opponents if (when) it is dropped. Whatever bill lands there, however, he is going to sign. He made that abundantly clear.
There is no reason to be disappointed with Obama's speech unless one expects more from him. I do not.
-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan