The President's Game Changing Speech

by James J. Zogby Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute 15.09.2009

Although President Obama's Wednesday night address to a special joint session of Congress may not have won the support of many of those hostile to his efforts to reform the nation's health care system, and exposed the depth of the nation's partisan divide, it was, nevertheless, a "game changer". Here's why.

For months now, supporters of health care reform have been under assault, some becoming demoralized. After an initial spurt of energy and activity, during which time four Congressional committees gave their approval to significant reform legislation, deliberations bogged down. In the House of Representatives, there was an effort to resolve differences between moderate and liberal Democrats, while a small group of Senators worked, in vain, to find a compromise in the Senate that could be supported by at least one Republican.

All this time, supporters of reform were forced to watch these negotiations eat away at their legislation, fearing that their early work would go for naught. There was real concern that their hope for meaningful reform was being undercut by those who were seeking, not to change, but to kill, the entire effort. Then, one month ago, without being able to meet the President's August deadline to pass a bill, Congress went on a long summer recess. That was when "all hell broke loose".

Hundreds of town meetings across the country, which had initially been organized in order to allow citizens to engage in a national discussion with their Congressional Representatives, were transformed, in many areas, into ugly shout fests. Opponents of reform promoted an organized campaign of disruption and distortion designed mainly to frighten the Congressional proponents of health care reform. The myths and outright fabrication, and the shouting and bullying tactics used by opponents, caused some to worry that moderate Democratic legislators who were "on the fence" might abandon reform and that, in any case, the President might be losing his ability to shape the national debate.

To a degree, these efforts bore bitter fruit. The "myths" were believed by some, and in the fog of confusion created by the distortions, public support for health care reform began to decline, especially among independent voters. Despite the White House's best efforts, they appeared unable to regain control of the national discussion. That is, until the Wednesday night speech.

The stakes were high for President Obama as he addressed the special session of Congress. And he delivered. He took on the "myths" and forcefully debunked them. He laid out his principles, culled from ideas proposed by leaders in both parties, noting that the reform he envisions should "bring stability and security to Americans who already have health insurance, guarantee affordable coverage for those who don't, and rein in the cost of health care". And then, the President closed, dramatically quoting the late Senator Edward Kennedy, long a champion of reform, by challenging both Houses of Congress to end partisan rancor and pass meaningful legislation. He called the imperative to do so "a test of our national character".

His compelling rhetoric rekindled hope and provided needed direction, energizing supporters of reform. At the same time, the shocking behavior of some Members of Congress-those who booed or otherwise demonstrated their dissatisfaction from the floor (one Member even shouting out "you lie" and "not true")-stunned many who were watching the speech or who saw news reports of the disgraceful antics, that played out in the media the next day. Rudeness, of this sort, while acceptable in the House of Commons, the Diet, or the Knesset, is unprecedented and unacceptable in the US Congress. These displays of disrespect and a lack of civility and proper decorum , that had become unfortunate standard fare at the recently completed round of Town Meetings, are not the way most Americans want to see elected officials behave, especially toward their President. Whether or not they agree with the positions of the man who holds the office, Americans have always demanded respect for the office of the President.

The impact was immediate. Overnight polls showed strong new support for the President, especially among Democrats and Independent voters (some of the latter being won over by the case Obama presented, while others were, quite simply, repulsed by the GOP's bad behavior). Now, it is the opponents of health care reform who are on the defensive. That is why, this was a "game changer" and the debate and work of passing meaningful legislation can begin anew.

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