Just when many of his staunchest supporters were beginning to doubt his resolve, President Obama stood tall in front of the joint session of Congress last night to deliver what history will record as one of the most stirring, courageous and poignant speeches in the annals of the nation’s history.
There was no backing down, no compromising with the goals that comprehensive health care reform must accomplish in America to serve the needs of a population too long held at the mercy of the profit-driven motives of the nation’s health care industry.
President Obama made an impassioned case for the most controversial feature of his plan, the so-called “public option,” but also catalogued remedies to the abuses of the industry today that will bring immediate relief to the American public. The abuses include the denial of care for “pre-existing conditions,” arbitrarily dropping persons from coverage, and the troubling fact that fully as many as 21 percent of claims by insured patients are denied through an array of technicalities by their insurers.
He made clear his impatience at those who’ve tried to muddy the debate with lies and misinformation. “I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than improve it. I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what’s in the plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now.”
He explained what’s behind the status quo. “Without competition, the price of insurance goes up and the quality goes down. And it makes it easier for insurance companies to treat their customers badly by cherry-picking the healthiest individuals and trying to drop the sickest, by overcharging small businesses who have no leverage, and by jacking up rates…They do it because it’s profitable…Insurance companies are not only encouraged to find reasons to drop the seriously ill, they are rewarded for it. All of this in service of meeting…’Wall Street’s relentless profit expectations.'”
“We cannot fail,” he said of the needed reforms, “Because there are too many Americans counting on us to succeed – the ones who suffer silently.”
Intoning the appeal of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, expressed in a letter Kennedy wrote to Obama last May when he was told his illness was terminal, Obama read the senator’s words, saying “he expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform, ‘that great unfinished business of our society,’ he called it, would finally pass.” Kennedy added, Obama said, that “what we face is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”
It was the phrase, “the character of our country,” that Obama then focused on. “Large-heartedness, that concern and regard for the plight of others, is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character: our ability to stand in other people’s shoes, a recognition that we are all in this together, that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand.”
“Our predecessors understood…that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited,” he said.
“I understand the politically safe move would be to kick the can further down the road…But that’s not what the moment calls for. That’s not what we came here to do. We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it. I still believe we can even when it’s hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history’s test. Because that’s who we are. That’s our calling. That is our character.” So he concluded one of the great speeches of our national history.
Of course, by interrupting the speech with his own cat-calls, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) revealed more about his own character, and that of similar types, than what Obama defined as the nation’s.