President Barack Obama on Wednesday night offered a health care speech to a joint session of Congress that was long on inspiration, explanations of his known views and tips of the hat to bipartisanship, but short on details and new proposals.
While White House officials billed the speech as a chance for the president to demonstrate exactly where he stands, nearly all of what he offered were well-known Obama positions, placed neatly into a single package.
The president did suggest for the first time that his package would cost $900 billion over 10 years, but he gave no details on how he reached this figure and few specifics about how to pay for it.
Instead, he spoke of proposals to prevent insurers from dropping and limiting coverage. He said individuals would be required to carry basic insurance and businesses would be required to offer it.
When he noted that “there remain some significant details to be ironed out,— he was met with sardonic laughter that seemed to surprise him.
One new proposal he made was a gesture toward the GOP to begin demonstration projects designed to reduce recourse to medical malpractice suits.
Obama also promised as he has many times in the past that the plan will be deficit neutral, but this time said there will be a provision that “requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don’t materialize.—
Obama launched into a spirited defense of the public insurance option, denying that it would result in government domination of the insurance industry. But he erased little of the ambiguity surrounding how much he wants this to be part of the health bill, noting that it is only “means— to an end. He described several versions of the idea, saying, “These are all constructive ideas worth exploring.—
The president sought to dispose of several lines of attack on his plan, using the largest bully pulpit he has to repeat previous contentions that the proposal will not result in “death panels— to ration care.
And he sought to reassure seniors that his proposals will do no harm to Medicare.Obama frequently mentioned his desire to work with Republicans and singled out several by name, including his defeated opponent in the presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). But Obama’s calls for bipartisanship before a national TV audience come as the chances for Republicans joining Democrats on legislation appear to lessen by the day.
Although Republican leaders steered clear of any theatrics or other forms of protests, rank-and-file members engaged in a series of isolated “protests.—
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), held up a piece of paper on which he had written “WHAT PLAN?— — although after Obama had spent much of his speech discussing his proposal, Gohmert ultimately tucked the sign into a stack of papers.
Gohmert, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and a smattering of other Republicans also waved copies of the GOP alternative “plan.—
Similarly, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) — who has made attacking Obama the centerpiece of his re-election campaign — was one of only a handful of Republicans who largely refused to give Obama even perfunctory applause at lines designed to appeal to Republicans and Democrats alike, and rarely participated in standing ovations.
At one point, however, the protests of Obama’s proposals did turn ugly. As Obama was attempting to debunk claims that Democratic health care proposals would provide benefits to illegal immigrants, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) screamed “You Lie!— at Obama.
Democrats immediately began booing Wilson, and Obama was clearly caught off guard as he looked at the Republican, who glared defiantly at the president.
Obama made several efforts to inspire Congress to act, the most poignant of which was his quoting of a letter he received from the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), written in May and delivered to Obama upon his death.
“He spoke about what a happy time his last months were, thanks to the love and support of family and friends, his wife, Vicki, and his children, who are here tonight,— Obama said. “And he expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform — that great unfinished business of our society,’ he called it — would finally pass,— Obama continued.
“He repeated the truth that health care is decisive for our future prosperity, but he also reminded me that it concerns more than material things,’ Obama said. “'What we face,’ he wrote, is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.’—