Smoking the joint session

After a summer of vicious town hall meetings, President Barack Obama shut out the nation’s lights (except for its TVs) for an hour of quiet time last night. He called for a Joint Session of Congress to address health care. It was the second such session in Obama’s brief tenure — George W. Bush delivered only two in his entire eight years as president — showing the enormous importance of the issue.

Obama delivered a speech both fresh and stale. His unveiling of an “Obama Plan,” to replace the numerous congressional bills currently floating around, was a refreshing explanation of what he expects from health care reform. Claiming that doing nothing means death and bankruptcy grazed the scare tactics used by his predecessor.

But this speech was a big deal. It is like passing Social Security again. Maybe bigger.

This will fundamentally alter the U.S. economy. According to Obama, it is a $900 billion proposal, though he said he refuses to sign a bill that increases the deficit by even a dime.

Obama promised a lot in his plan, probably more than is possible. However, he set a necessary trajectory in a debate quickly pulling an albatross. The speech will surely marshal support and rekindle the belly-fires of some Democrats losing the will to be dubbed Nazis for much longer. Some proposals also reached out to Republicans — Sen. John McCain by name twice — though they did little to hinder a prevailing air that the House of Representatives is devolving into the House of Commons.

Every time Obama proposes anything, he faces the vipers. Some Republicans, many in the House, are bent on stopping his agenda, preferring unprincipled stonewalling to compromise until they whittle an eventual victory on anything. Then they can sound the conch to declare, “The tides have turned! America hates Obama!” GOP disdain for Obama boiled until one House member yelled, “You lie!” when Obama said his plan wouldn’t cover illegal immigrants. Most others waved the House Republican health care plan — closer to the length of a term paper than the 1000-plus-page Democratic bills. One Republican carried a sign reading, “What bill?” in protest to Obama’s claims.

Their conduct was disrespectful, often informed — or misinformed — by ignorance. Yet, it was inexorably sincere. In their raucous behavior, the Republicans showcased a fever for action.

Obama’s prescription is a renewed commitment to bipartisanship and some principles that need detailing in the days that follow. A necessary vagueness ran throughout the speech, as Obama favored worthy, broad objectives over wonk talk.

Among them is the requirement that everyone carry basic health care coverage, hopefully made affordable by these reforms. Many students, the “young and healthy” as Obama said, might not think they need coverage or are already covered by parents’ plans. But how many students or their parents can’t afford even basic coverage? How many lost their coverage when they lost jobs in this recession? Answer: Enough.

Obama’s bill sounds like it will help. His speech rose to the occasion. We’re sold on the idea. Now how? And how soon?

Read the full text of the speech here

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