Tonight's speech was one of Obama's very best -- and he's delivered some good ones. I don't have any one overarching theme, but here are my thoughts:
First, I'm glad there was such a big focus on benefits to the insured. The threats to insured people -- rising premiums, lack of security -- are so nontransparent that it's hard to convince these people why reform helps them too.
Second, and relatedly, I thought there was a much better balance of emotion to policy in tonight's speech. We all love us some Orszag, but this cost curve business doesn't exactly get people fi'ed up, ready to go.
Third, I think the primary benefit of tonight's speech is less that Obama will win over skeptics, and more that he'll unify his own coalition. I mean, personally, I thought he made Congressional Republicans seem small tonight. But I doubt Obama skeptics would agree.
In any event, my hope is that the speech will re-energize Democrats and more liberal independents. There have been many blows to liberal morale over the past few months that have been dragging down his health care numbers. Hopefully, this speech will turn that around.
But finally, the best part of the speech was the transition from Ted Kennedy's values to the larger moral defense of government. It was pitch perfect -- and it articulated at a fundamental level why so many of us choose to identify as liberals and progressives. After noting America's rightful celebration of individualism, Obama goes on to say:
That large-heartedness - that concern and regard for the plight of others - is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people's shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgement that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.
It's easy for conservatives to lose sight of this. I used to be one, after all, and I remember thinking of liberals as strawman types who only wanted to expand government for the sake of government.
But that misses what's fundamental about our political philosophy. No one here is anti-market. There are many areas (zoning, food subsidies, spectrum, intellectual property) where liberals would join hand in hand with conservatives' deregulatory efforts.
But markets aren't always enough. Leaving things to markets can hurt people. And that's where government comes in. It's sort of beautiful, actually -- this idea that a broad mass of strangers can come together through legislation and regulation and institutions to ensure basic security for people. That's why we choose to be progressives -- it's a politics of empathy.
And as Obama noted, these collective efforts are just as much as part of the American experience as individualism. Social Security and the Great Society and the Civil Rights Acts are all tremendous achievements that helped a lot of people.
It's just baffling sometimes to see the degree of ideological hostility to these efforts. Even if you disagree with certain policies, the transformation of government action into some force of evil is just strange -- and it runs counter to many of our nation's finest accomplishments.
As I've said before, the true progressive moment in America can only come when we rehabilitate the idea of government -- when we finally escape the Reagan paradigm. Obama pointed in that direction tonight. And it was refreshing to hear.