Before Obama’s health-care-reform speech last night, I thought he had about a .001 percent chance of giving a good rhetorical performance. The health-care debate had become so inane and politically tangled it seemed to prohibit the basic conditions of good speechmaking: clarity, strength, passion — and at least a whiff of real human thought.
True, if anyone could pull it off it would be Obama: Giving the impossible great speech has been at the core of his legend since back in the primaries, when he defused a political disaster with the famous Philadelphia race speech. And health care was starting to feel a little like the Reverend Wright situation: Obama’s momentum was nose-diving because of a polarizing issue most politicians spend their entire careers trying to avoid. But this time a good speech seemed less likely. There were too many interest groups, too much misinformation, too much at stake. He’s also shackled, this time, by the notorious rhetorical handcuffs of the American presidency — an institution that pretty much defines itself by strategically vapid speechmaking. (For the lengths to which smart presidents will go to seem publicly dumb, see Elvin Lim’s The Anti-Intellectual Presidency.) This speech, then, would be “presidential” in the worst sense: safe, hedging, and loaded with subtly coded nods to various interest groups. Its purpose, I assumed, wouldn’t be to advance health care but to reposition Obama so he’d look less bad when the project inevitably failed. For all the naïve idealists who once believed he would step in and revolutionize Washington, this speech would probably be a spiritual Waterloo.
My preemptive cynicism turned out to be both very right and very wrong. Obama did something I haven’t seen him do before. He managed to have it both ways, uniting “presidential” rhetoric (practical, muted, middle-of-the-road) with the airier stuff that got people excited about him in the first place. He took us into “Yes we can” territory while talking about tax credits and insurance premiums. He was simultaneously boring and thrilling. I’ve never seen another president fuse those two opposite discourses so convincingly.
The speech highlighted all the most attractive elements of Obama’s political persona: the professorial (“Here’s what you need to know”), the conciliatory (“This was a good idea when Senator John McCain proposed it in the campaign, it’s a good idea now, and we should embrace it”), and the inspirational. His closing jag on “the character of our country” — in which he insisted that compassion is as central an American value as rugged individualism, and that “the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little” — was particularly strong. The old rhetorical cylinders were firing as hard as they have since his candidacy: his love of triads (“three basic goals”) and iambs (“The time for games has passed”) and alliteration (“demagoguery and distortion”).
Most of all, he flashed the strong gift for narrative that sets him apart from every other politician. Obama’s real power has always been as a storyteller, and last night he turned health care into a story: a hundred-year epic with clear villains (red-baiters, insurance companies) and everyone else, right now at this magical moment, poised on the brink of heroism. As usual, he nested a complex debate in a narrative that’s very hard to resist.
People are picking apart the policy details, but this speech wasn’t (mainly) about those. This was about tone. At some point in any big debate like this, “the national mood” becomes a political fact — the public’s perception of its own opinion, as reported by the media, takes on life of its own. And the mood on health care was starting to look very bad. Obama won the tone war last night. (The booing and catcalling and sign-waving Republicans only turned a clear victory into a blowout.) Last night, in around 45 minutes, Obama turned the momentum. That a single person can turn the national momentum, in one speech, using only words and his brain, is an old-fashioned political skill that’s always impressive to see — and a political weapon the other side doesn’t have right now.