President Barack Obama's September 9th healthcare address to Congress was notable not for his oratory - which was superb - but for his manner. Obama shelved his professorial demeanor and displayed the cool determination that has characterized his best speeches. As he threw down the gauntlet to his Republican detractors, "We will call you out," the GOP responded with a startling display of churlish behavior.
Time and again, when Obama's political fortunes have waned, he's come up with a rousing speech to motivate the Democratic faithful. That's what happened September 9th. Liberals - who only a few days earlier were ready to dump Obama and launch a new "Kucinich for President" campaign - were clapping their hands, stomping their feet, and shouting "Barack's da man."
Obama challenged Congress to enact healthcare reform: "We did not come here to fear the future. We came here to shape it." But his speech contained little new information. The President elaborated upon his three goals. First, "provide more security and stability to those who have health insurance... provide insurance to those who don't." Second, provide "quality, affordable choices" to everyone - even those who are currently deemed "uninsurable" or who are to poor to afford healthcare. And third, make the $900 billion plan deficit neutral, "I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits."
For most liberals, the substantive highlight of the President's speech was his reaffirmation of support for the public option: "An additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange." While indicating he was open to negotiation on the details of the public option, Obama warned: "I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice."
Obama addressed the misinformation spread by Republicans. "The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Such a charge would be laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple."
After repeating his call for bipartisanship and promising to listen to competing ideas, the President warned: "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."
Liberals, who had been waiting for Obama to get angry and fight back, were heartened by his promise: "We will call you out."
Over the past few years, expectations for Congressional Republican behavior have steadily deteriorated. Political observers now remember the Nixon and Reagan eras as positive examples of bipartisanship, even though at the time GOP tactics seemed savagely partisan and mean spirited.
Nonetheless, Obama repeated his call for bipartisanship: "the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed." Invoking the memory of Teddy Kennedy, Obama praised his "large-heartedness - that concern and regard for the plight of others" and mentioned Republican Senators who had worked with Kennedy on significant bipartisan legislation: Orrin Hatch, John McCain, and Chuck Grassley. Sadly, those days seem a historical relic. Rather than reach across the aisle, Republicans are now content to hurl insults and teabags.
On September 9th, Republican members of the House and Senate acted like petulant fraternity boys forced to attend Sunday mass. At one point, GOP Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted, "You lie!" at Obama. TV cameras caught GOP Whip, Eric Cantor, working his blackberry, and other Republicans making faces or laughing derisively. When the President defended Medicare - perhaps the most popular social program - Republicans fumed.
Last October 7th, Obama won the second Presidential debate because he displayed Presidential temperament. While Obama was speaking, cameras caught GOP candidate John McCain scowling and wandering around his podium like a disgruntled troll. At the time, many of us dismissed McCain's inappropriate behavior as a personality disorder, a consequence of his incarceration as a POW or perhaps early onset senile dementia.
It turns out that McCain's conduct was symptomatic of a behavior problem that inflicts many Republicans. Rather than listen to reason and negotiate in good faith, Republican members of Congress choose to spread misinformation and make derisive comments. Rather than lead, the GOP prefers to bully.
On September 9th, Barack Obama once again won the temperament debate. He displayed Presidential character, the leadership required to reform America's dysfunctional healthcare system. When he promised, "We will call you out," Obama acknowledged that the only way to handle bullies is to speak the truth and force them to back down.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.