Obama, in attempting the first significant healthcare reform legislation in 40 years, understood quite well what he needed to do: get the base -- the people who donated money, sweat and tears to get him elected -- off his back, and on his side, without ceding them anything on the policy front. And a week later it appears he has pulled off this major feat, while hiding behind strong but largely empty language about the nature of liberalism.
1) It threw a huge bone to private insurance companies by providing a mandate, forcing uninsured people to buy policies, thus guaranteeing tens of millions of new customers to buy their products or face tax penalties. Insurance companies love this idea, and having donated large piles of money to both political parties, this position has the support of both sides of the isle in Washington. Small wonder Business Week recently declared that the "Health Insurers have Already Won."
2) His plan drew a line on the sand on the deficit, in an effort to appeal to budget hawks. Obama declared he will not sign a bill that adds even "one dime" to the deficit, showing no flexibility on the matter.
3) The President, for all practical purposes, killed prospects for a public option, by saying it was only a "means" to an end, and unessential. There will be no veto threats or legislative arm twisting on this issue. Instead the left gets lectured for using the public option as a "handy excuse" to have the "usual Washington ideological battles" (as if standing up for something the public wants and voted for is some kind of egregious sin).
The third point is critical. Going into the speech, many liberals, most notably among House Democrats, were demanding a public option. Some of them, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were insisting that the legislation include a public healthcare plan that uninsured Americans could buy into (most constructs of the plan would not allow someone currently enrolled in an employer-based plan to buy in -- already a huge concession from the left), lest they vote against the bill.
Obama could have used his speech to fight for such a reform, if he so chose. A whopping 72 percent of the public support a public option of some sort, while 59 percent support a sweeping national healthcare plan (ie, Medicare for All, or single-payer healthcare.) Further, due to progressive domination of the last two elections, Obama is blessed with mammoth majorities in both chambers of Congress. While it is true the GOP will not support a public option, it is a moot point -- the GOP, save perhaps one lone Senator, won't support a bill without a public option either. And the Democrats have the ability to pass through a bill with only 51 votes, as Republicans did with the Bush tax cuts in 2001.
But while Obama drew a line in the sand on the deficit, refusing to budge with one dime, he wavered on the public option -- saying that while he likes the idea, he is not married to it. The end result: the insurance companies get what they want -- no public competition and a mandate; Republicans, though irrelevant in practice, manage to help kill such a plan with their militant opposition to government-funded healthcare; and progressives, despite having the public behind them, get nothing except brilliantly worded and passionate oratory. Obama may not be able to (or truly want to) deliver a public option, but no one can doubt his ability to deliver a damn good speech.