Bob Franken

President Obama: Trying to Play Offense

The White House promised he would come out swinging and he did. Abandoning the “Mr. Cool” persona he dearly loves to convey, President Obama took it to the ones who have sent him reeling with what he called “—bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost.”

He minced no words, confronting the claim from “—prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens.” “Such a charge,” he went on, “would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.”

There was nothing subtle about that, a direct shot at Sarah Palin and the others who have contended the Obama plan would create “Death Panels.” This was his “No More Mr. Nice Guy” address, holding up a small carrot in one hand, and a massive stick, make that a club, in the other: “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.”

The President and his people were well aware that the Republicans and their allies had sent his health care reform effort into a downward spiral. The consensus politics he favors had been interpreted by the other side as weakness. In August they had steamrollered him.

This highly unusual address to a joint session of Congress was his declaration that he was determined to take control and regain the slipping public confidence in his ability to handle the issue. While he spent much of his time outlining the specifics of what he’s proposing, the main purpose of the speech was to take on a debate over health care debate that has become poisonous in a toxic atmosphere where “— facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation—”

Civil conversation has gone by the wayside, replaced by bizarre distortions that have caused a frenzy that threatened to consume any chance at meaningful reform. “Too many”, said the President, “have used this as an opportunity to score short term political points, even if it robs the country of our opportunity to solve a long term challenge. ”

The Congressional speech marked the end of the preliminaries and the start of the final push to successful reform or failure, with the President declaring “The time for bickering is over.”

Don’t bet on that. The question is whether the bickering will also be accompanied by constructive efforts to rebuild a health care system that all agree is in tatters. Or whether that hope will be overcome by the political bitterness that consumes our country. With his congressional speech, President Obama gave it his best shot. We’ll find out very soon whether his best was good enough.

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