If eloquence was the only measure that mattered in assessing political speeches, President Obama hit a home run last night. But, the President does not wish to be remembered for giving an outstanding speech to a joint session of Congress. He wants to be remembered as the President who finally achieved universal health care for all Americans. And, it will take a few days to find out if the speech helped him to earn that label.
It is now obvious that, with the exception of Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins from Maine, Obama and the Democrats have given up on gaining significant bipartisan support. (Maine voted for Obama last year by a margin of 58-40 percent.) When the President reached out to Republicans rhetorically, by praising an idea that Sen. John McCain proposed last year and calling for studies on limiting medical malpractice lawsuits, he was not really speaking to Republicans. The GOP has made it clear that they will not back reform so why did the President make the concessions? Because Independent voters want bipartisanship. They are the voters who say they "vote for the person not for the party," which makes them the definition of a swing voter. So, when they see the President praising his former rival and embracing the most central idea in GOP reform efforts, they see Obama doing exactly what they want.
Independent voters were even more likely to swing towards Obama after the rudeness that has characterized the town hall meetings nationwide worked its way into the House chamber last night. In a virtually unprecedented outburst, Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted "You lie!" at the President, evidently hoping that the murmur of his fellow Republicans and the applause of the Democrats, would drown out his words. Instead, the entire hall had just gone quiet. Obama looked to his left. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s jaw dropped. Post-speech coverage did not mention a single Republican idea, only this Republican boorishness.
The first poll after the speech showed a 14 percentage point swing towards the President’s position among those who watched the speech. That means one-in-seven voters changed their mind about health reform as a result of the speech. That is a huge switch, and CNN admitted to a worry that the poll might have over-sampled Democrats who were understandably enthusiastic about the President’s efforts. Seventy percent of those polled said Obama’s policies were moving the country in the right direction. Those are numbers that will stiffen the spine of conservative Blue Dog Democrats. Additionally, and as urged yesterday, the President's willingness to employ explicitly moral language in making his case provides these conservative Democrats with a language their constituents understand. This very wonkish President was not very wonkish last night.
More important than people’s actual reactions to these speeches are the pundits’ reactions. Time after time, focus groups and instant polling registered one verdict, but after the pundits registered a different one, voters aligned their opinions with those they heard on television. Last night, except for Fox, most of the commentary was intensely favorable so the instant polling numbers should solidify. Now, the President needs to turn his public relations triumph into a legislative one by cajoling and corralling every single Democrat and get them to vote for this bill. He strengthened his hand immeasurably last night.