Should Obama seek to go toe-to-toe with would-be maligners across the aisle? Or, should he retreat once again to his role as a thoughtful yet hesitant President?
Finally, it happened. It was no more than a flash, of burnished, steely determination glinting in the sun. But it was there and no mistaking it for anything other than the old Obama magic
What was so startling about President Obama's fiery, provocative speech at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania on Monday was the powerful surge of déjà vu that it brought, the invocation of a stirring within every member of the audience. By the end of it, all of them were swept away in the crescendo of his words as he roared, “And if you share that belief, I want you to stand with me and fight with me” to thunderous applause. The General had returned.
The “belief” that the President referred to, of course, was America's faith in the urgent need for healthcare reform. Why did it evoke déjà vu? Because after weary, interminable months of tackling the relentless siege of opposition obstructionism, the memory of Candidate Obama had, unbelievably, faded.
And faded not just for those all-important swing voters in what is still very much a polarised American polity. It had faded for even his strongest base of supporters, the so-called Millennial voters, who until today the polls indicated were disillusioned with the President's inability to deliver change.
So low is the ebb of hope today that few would readily recall that this was the man who brought a tired, frustrated and internationally unappreciated America back up to its feet with a renewed sense of purpose.
Yet finally, after more than thirteen months of gentlemanly conduct, he stepped out on the front foot and no apologies. Finally, after more than a year of putting his faith in quiet persuasion and patient interlocution, he did more than just block a punch. He rolled up his sleeves (literally, he did). He took off his jacket, saying “It's hot up here!” And, lo and behold, the man started punching.
First an uppercut: “When you're in Washington, folks respond to every issue, every decision, every debate, no matter how important it is, with the same question: What does this mean for the next election?”
Then a jab: “Every year, insurance companies deny more people coverage because they've got pre-existing conditions. Every year, they drop more people's coverage when they get sick… Every year, they raise premiums higher and higher and higher. Just last month, Anthem Blue Cross in California tried to jack up rates by nearly 40 per cent. Anybody's paycheck gone up 40 per cent?”.
A feint to the left: “The other day, there was a conference call that was organised by Goldman Sachs… in which an insurance broker was telling Wall Street investors… that insurance companies know they will lose customers if they keep on raising premiums, but because there's so little competition in the insurance industry, they're okay with people being priced out.”
And finally that killer hook: “So what should I tell these [chronically ill] Americans? That Washington is not sure how it will play in November? That we should walk away from this fight, or [that] we'll do it incrementally, we'll take baby steps? [AUDIENCE: “No!”] So they want me to pretend to do something that doesn't really help these folks.”
Of course when Obama fights, it ain't no brawl — so he took some time with the Arcadia crowd, as he did for seven and a half hours in a recent summit with Republicans, to carefully lay out the reasons why his reform would help the healthcare system cut costs, increase coverage, reduce its deficit impact and end the tyranny of insurance companies enriching themselves to the detriment of ordinary Americans.
The experience was salutary. Obama could not have missed that fact. His audience certainly did not. Yet with all eyes, including Democrats', on Congressional elections in November, Monday's speech and the reaction bring an important behavioural question to the fore: should Obama seek to go toe-to-toe with would-be maligners across the aisle? Or, should he retreat once again to his role as a thoughtful yet hesitant President?
In truth the answer may well not matter, because regardless of the stormy weather November may bring, it will be followed by a whole two years during which possibly 30 million more Americans will be returned to a life of dignity, security and affordable, quality healthcare. And they will not forget their President when he needs them.
In Obama's own words, he would have put doing what is right before doing what is politically expedient. If that high moral choice might also result in the transformation of a purely exploitative system, then Republican objections become irrelevant. Let them kick and scream.