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The Problem with Obama's Speech

Nov 09, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

That was a great speech, as usual. It left people energized. It sounded like he's going to take the fight to the other guys. Obama knocks it out of the park again.

So, why do I have to be bah humbug about this again? Because the speech went almost exactly as predicted. Great rhetorical flourishes, but did anyone hear him say that he was definitely going to fight for the public option? No.

I said before the speech that he would say very good things about the public option. That was never the question. He is savvy enough to know that he can't say something negative about it when he has promised it over and over in the past and that his base is obviously very animated about it. In fact, I think he means what he says - he really does believe in the public option. But again, that's not the question. The question is whether he would draw the line on it. Tonight he did the opposite.

He said it was a rigidly ideological position of the left to insist it must be in the bill. Here are the exact words he had for progressives on the public option:

"It is only one part of my plan, and should not be used as a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles. To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage affordable for those without it. The public option is only a means to that end - and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal."

He went on to say the public option would only apply to five percent of the population anyway, a clear attempt to diminish its importance. He mentioned co-ops as a good alternative. And he said vaguely that he will insist on some sort of "choice" for the consumer ("But I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice."). He didn't say what choice that would be. That's a long way away from insisting on the public option. In fact, an excellent case could be made that he is signaling a willingness to negotiate something less than the public option.

But he covered up those facts with so much praise for the public option that a lot of people left feeling like he was really in favor of it. Being in favor of it and insisting on it are two different things.

Look, I hate to do it to you. And I am positive a lot of people will be really pissed at me for being pessimistic after that lovely speech. They already are. We covered the speech live on our show and we were flooded with comments afterward saying that Obama proved me wrong by showing that he would fight for the public option. I still have hope, and his position might harden in favor of that option as we move forward, but that is not what he said tonight.

I don't want people to get me wrong. It was a great speech. I loved the way he finally went after the Republicans in a forceful way. He made clear and convincing arguments for nearly every provision in his proposal, including the public option. He did a great job of pointing out the other important parts of the bill - getting rid of the practices of denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions and rescission.

The reason I bring up my criticism here is because we can't afford to let up (also, simply because it is true). If you think it's enough for Obama to say he wants the public option, you're not right. He has to go to battle for it - and in the end, there is no way around it - he has to insist it's in the bill when the Republicans, the lobbyists and health care industry fight him tooth and nail on it.

Unfortunately, we do not have nearly enough evidence that he will do that. We must continue to push him in that direction. If we don't, then it will be just as much our fault as his for not getting it done. The other side never lets up. They never stop pushing. If we do, then we still haven't learned the political realities of Washington. So, it's more important than ever not to get seduced by just appealing words. We must demand action.