By Tom Shales
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Was it a mistake for Barack Obama -- as political performer -- to deliver his biggest speech yet on health-care reform to a joint session of Congress instead of as a fireside chat, or by some other mechanism that the president has at his disposal? At times Wednesday night, it seemed the choice might prove a tactical blunder on television.
A joint session, after all, means lots of padding for pomp, circumstance and folderol, like the 16 minutes it took for Obama -- preceded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton almost dancing her way down the aisle -- just to get to the lectern in the House of Representatives chamber. The battle of the applause -- Democrats doing too much of it, Republicans sitting most of it out with sour frowns -- takes up too much time and causes too many interruptions.
Those nuisances might have somewhat impaired the speech's effectiveness, but ultimately, it could well have been worth it. The symbolism worked in his favor: Obama came across like Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington": a bright-eyed young idealist up against entrenched power, old ideas and obstructionism.
It was also a chance for Obama to go on national television and look presidential again, asserting himself in ways that helped make up for the past few months of perceived defensiveness, of appearing to kowtow to other powers, and of seeming to do more following than leading.
On all the broadcast networks, on PBS (with a true, wide-screen, high-def picture that was striking), on the news channels and on C-Span, the effect, telegenically, was that of a president reminding a viewing nation that he's up to the task.
There were, however, unintelligible shouts that sounded derisive. One heckler, Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, shouted out, "You lie!" Again, the contrast worked to Obama's advantage; he looked and sounded calm and rational, though certainly assertive, while moblike voices railed defiantly against him.
There also were shots of the Republicans sitting stubbornly in their seats while the Democrats leapt to their feet, cheering. Of course, there was too much leaping-to-feet and cheering, but the cumulative effect of the divergent images carried the subliminal message: Democrats upbeat, Republicans downbeat. And uncivil.
At one point in his speech, Obama introduced the refrain "I still believe" as he cited some of the democratic virtues in which he believed ("We can do great things"), and this seemed to sum up the spirit of his talk and perhaps of his presidency: a man determined not to desert ideals and principles, no matter how much cynical resistance he encountered from the old guard in Washington -- the "Mr. Smith" theme again.
Afterward, the speech was pronounced "remarkable" by ABC commentator George Stephanopoulos, who also found it to be Obama's "most emotional" speech so far, more passionate than even his inaugural address. Reporters and analysts on other networks seemed basically to concur. The speech was workmanlike and, as always, proficiently delivered, but it could well be argued than in its closing moments -- after a dramatic pause in which he switched rhetorical gears one more time -- it achieved a certain greatness, or at least an admirable eloquence and fervor.
At that point, many viewers might already have been thinking about the most glaring and poignant absence in the House chamber: that of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, where so often his white mane and smile shined in the TV lights. Quoting from a letter that Kennedy had written and that he had asked to be read after his death, Obama hit one out of the park. Kennedy himself would probably have been proud of the use to which his words were put.
The letter was in part another assault on partisanship in a time of deep crisis, and Obama's point was that Kennedy, no matter how political an animal he was, knew when it was time to put differences aside and stop bickering. If we don't, Obama said, then "we lose something essential about ourselves" and about "the character of our country."
That was moving and, one would think, most likely touched a chord with millions watching -- an attempt to link Obama with whatever it is that drives Good Samaritans and humanitarians to behave selflessly and in the interests of their friends and neighbors and even political foes. Obama had earlier pointed out one portion of his health plan that, he said, had been introduced by his opponent Sen. John McCain during the presidential campaign, a display of seeming magnanimity, Obama portraying himself as open-minded and forgiving.
About midway through the speech, Obama ticked off what he said were misconceptions and misunderstandings about his efforts to overhaul the health-care system -- essentially, he said or implied, lies spread by enemies. He shot down the most preposterous of those first: the notion that the "reform" would include the establishment of "death panels" through which bureaucrats in Washington would decide who should live and who should die among senior citizens seeking medical care.
Whatever one might think about particulars of the plan or its various details, Obama seemed to try to present his side of the debate as evenhanded and levelheaded, and his motives and those of those supporting reform as pure and noble.
He was positioning himself as the bright, ambitious young president up against the stodgy old defenders of a corrupt status quo. He was like a presidential version of Jefferson Smith attempting to survive the slings and arrows of crass politicians acting on orders from big business. Such was the image that emerged from the speech, and it's hard to think of another living politician who could have put it over with more oomph or elegance.