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Obama Health Speech Pre-Spin

Not surprisingly, Republicans are anticipating the President's health care reform speech before Congress tomorrow with some serious pre-spin. The basic take, expressed by Jonah Goldberg today, is that this arrogant politician thinks he can override overwhelming public opposition to health reform with oratory, but it won't work.

I'd normally just scoff this all off as predictable partisan hackery, and in many cases that's what it is, but I would like to take a closer look at one column of negative predictions about the speech, by Jay Cost of RealClearPolitics. I do so because I don't think Jay's a hack, but his writing does illustrate some circular reasoning that's common among many Republicans and even some Democrats. It all goes back to the 2008 campaign:

President Obama is a compelling speaker to a relatively narrow segment of the country - namely, African Americans and white social liberals. He inspired them to support his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton - but other voters (including many in his own party) were harder to win over. His Philadelphia speech on race was no Cooper Union; it merely distracted attention from the main question of why he spent so many years in that church. His numbers still fell, and he struggled through the rest of the primaries, even losing South Dakota on the day he declared victory. He then gave big speeches in Europe and Denver, but it was only thanks to the financial panic of last September that he had a breakthrough.

Still, his speechifying seems to give some people a thrill up the leg - and the idea that he's not just a good speaker, but a game changing speaker, has become conventional wisdom. I think the White House believes that this is actually true.

As this snippet illustrates, Jay, like a lot of people, is deeply invested in the idea that Obama's victory last year was sort of a fluke, and certainly didn't indicate that Americans supported (or even paid attention to) the agenda he campaigned on. He won because people were tired of Bush, or because of the financial meltdown, nothing else. And as a result, he shouldn't expect to act on his agenda. In the case of health reform, the President should, as Jay has said a couple of times, sort of stamping his foot, "scale his proposal back," and forget about anything that looks or smells like universal health coverage. After all, this remains a center-right country, right?

This attitude is related to another one that you hear a lot: that Obama has unaccountably "tilted to the left" since taking office, listening to liberals and disrespecting moderates. For many Republican partisans, this spin, consciously or unconsciously, is designed to mask their own rather dramatic shift to the right since 2006, when they first decided (and then decided again after the 2008 election) that Bush's "big government conservatism" was the reason for their electoral weakness. I don't think this is Jay Cost's motive; like David Brooks, he really has convinced himself that there isn't and hasn't recently been an electoral majority for mainstream progressivism, so if Obama is trying to implement his campaign agenda, in conjunction with the congressional Democrats who were elected on similar platforms, that counts as a shift to the left from what he thinks Obama ought to do.

The problem with this mindset, other than the fact that it involves treating Barack Obama like a treacherous backstabber for doing exactly what he said he'd do during the campaign, is that it blinds one to the actual politics of the current situation. Obama's hardly home free on health reform, of course, but at present, it looks very likely that the House will pass a bill, and that Democrats have a better than average chance of coming up with a deal with Olympia Snowe and perhaps one or two more Senate Republicans that will enable them to get 60 votes for cloture. Alternatively, even though Republicans will shriek about it, it's within the power of Senate Democrats to use reconciliation and avoid the risk of filibuster altogether. Assuming the Senate bill has some sort of public option, even if it's "triggered," I think the deal can get through the House, too. Or at any rate, it's hardly the sort of guaranteed losing proposition that both Goldberg and Cost seem to think it is.

If I'm right, then the political context of the presidential speech becomes different: it's not some desparate measure to work political magic, but an effort to frame the endgame of the health debate, to deal with the lies that are out there about what he's trying to do, and to rally the troops he already has, which, after all, clearly include over half the people in Congress. He might be able to produce some positive movement in the polls as well, but even if he doesn't, he's likely to get a bump when health reform is enacted and the sky doesn't fall on people with insurance, while people without it (or in danger of losing it) will be pretty happy.

So the speech doesn't have to produce miracles, and if someone tells you it must, they probably don't think health reform is a particularly good idea to begin with.