President Obama didn't convert Fox News Nation Wednesday night, but for anyone with an open mind, he did well. Five reasons why:
1. Time and Place: Plenty of pundits said that he should have given a big speech a few months ago, before the town meetings and resistance set in. But speeches are like fast food—a few weeks later you're hungry again. If he had given the speech in May, before the bills had advanced in Congress, it would have been wasted. By giving the big motivational speech now, he provides the excitement and hustle to get the ball over the goal line.
The setting was also important. Just as in February, when he last spoke to Congress and found his sea legs with a terrific speech, Obama plays well off of an audience. With each side of the aisle jumping up and down at various moments, it's also a party-building exercise. Republicans looked sour and nasty; Rep. Charles Boustany's response was weak and Rep. Joe Wilson's heckling ("You lie!") pathetic. (He later apologized, calling his outburst "inappropriate and regrettable.) Winning now is largely about peer pressure on wobbly Democrats and a joint session is a terrific place to apply it.
2. Seniors: Republicans have done a good job in recent weeks frightening senior citizens, which is usually the job of Democrats. This was hypocritical, for reasons Obama made clear. The pandering Republicans who claim the president wants to hurt Medicare are the same ones who voted recently for huge cuts in the program. Many were against the prescription drug benefit and just about every other program to help the elderly and are, like former Majority Leader Dick Armey, philosophically opposed to the idea of Medicare in the first place. This was a good place to begin "calling out" critics.
Because seniors vote in disproportionately high numbers in off-year elections, it was essential for Democrats to get more of them back in the fold or risk suffering devastating losses next year. Even if they remain anxious about reform, seniors often listen most closely to the details. The president went a good distance toward defanging the gray panthers.
3. Independents: Indies hold the balance of power in American politics and they've been slipping away from Obama in recent weeks. Their big issues are cost (Will this bankrupt the country?) and self-interest (Will I have to pay through the nose to help some uninsured person?)
Obama went hard at both concerns. He was particularly effective in threatening to veto any bill that added to the deficit. Washington has known this for months but the rest of the country hadn't heard it clearly. His bipartisan nods to Orrin Hatch, John McCain, Chuck Grassley and doctors who favor tort reform all helped his tough partisan message to GOP rejectionists go down easier. And by spending so much time on the plan's "stability and security" for the already-insured, he spoke directly to the key indie group.
4. Blue-dog Democrats: Obama is meeting Thursday with a group of them in the White House and you can expect him to reinforce the message that the best way for them to lose their seats in marginal districts is to have a president of their party who is humiliated. That's what happened in 1994. Any conservative Democrat who doesn't get this is politically stupid.
Obama may also reiterate an important section of the speech where he mentioned all of those members of Congress who voted for the Iraq war and the Bush tax cuts for the rich—both of which were more expensive than health care reform. Many blue dogs went with the Republicans on those budget-busting votes. They can't very well turn around now and defy their own president on grounds of fiscal discipline. That kind of hypocrisy would suggest that they aren't serious about wanting reform, which means they have no business calling themselves Democrats in the first place. And if they try to weasel out that way, Obama is warning them that he'll "call them out."
5. Liberals: A group of House Democrats have pledged to vote against any bill that doesn't contain a public option. In his speech, the president endorsed a public option and gave them the green light to press hard for it, as well they should. But he essentially told them that they are crazy to jeopardize all of the historic gains in the bill over a "means to an end." The enthusiastic response to his performance suggests that the message was received.
So, in a line Obama often uses but didn't attempt Wednesday night, the perfect will not apparently be the enemy of the good. Americans can look forward with confidence to the passage of historic legislation this fall.