Prime-Time Pitch

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 2009; 9:33 AM

I got to see President Obama in action twice yesterday -- once in person, where he took a few whacks at the press at Walter Cronkite's memorial, and once on the tube, where he blamed "radio and talk show hosts" for their role in spreading the death panel fallacy and chided the media for exaggerating the importance of the public option.

The president's speech to Congress was his crispest and most forceful defense of his health-care plans. But what was telling was the laughter in the chamber when Obama allowed that there are "significant details to be ironed out."

He wisely began with what virtually everyone agrees upon: barring insurance companies from kicking sick people off the rolls on technicalities or rejecting people based on preexisting conditions. And he repeated his ritual incantation that you can keep your coverage and that your benefits won't be cut -- though that may be hard to guarantee if major changes are made.

Obama knocked down what he called falsehoods -- such as that health reform would finance care for illegal immigrants -- and he went out of his way to play down the public option, saying it was only "a means to an end" (even as he declared that he "will not back down" on creating some form of competition for private insurance companies). He was fuzzier on paying for the plan, even as he again vowed not to increase the deficit.

And, of course, Obama invoked a letter from Ted Kennedy that the late senator asked to be delivered after his death.

"The time for bickering is over," the president declared. But whatever reviews the speech draws, Capitol Hill doesn't work that way. Most Republicans seem to have made the political calculation that it's better to try to kill any bill. Indeed, in the Republican response, Rep. Charles Boustany, a doctor, accused Obama of aiming at "replacing" your family's insurance with "government-run health care."

(Even more dramatic was the outburst from a South Carolina congressman, described here by his home-state newspaper: "Democrats and Republicans alike are denouncing Rep. Joe Wilson for shouting 'You lie' at President Barack Obama during his speech to Congress, an extraordinary breach of decorum for which the South Carolina Republican swiftly apologized."

I have never seen anything like it.)

During the climax to the speech, Obama said: "I still believe we can replace acrimony with stability, and gridlock with progress." He seemed to me to be defending not just his health proposal but his whole approach to the presidency. He is still committed to some form of bipartisanship. We are about to find out whether that is realistic.

Among the insta-pundits, ABC's George Stephanopoulos said: "This might have been the most emotional speech I've ever seen President Obama give. He was on the edge of anger at times."

But Bill O'Reilly called the 45-minute address "way too long." O'Reilly's lead guest, Karl Rove, said his boss's successor was "gratuitously and bitterly partisan."

A look at the morning papers and blogs:

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