"The nature of oratory is such that there has always been a tendency among politicians and clergymen to oversimplify complex matters. From a pulpit or a platform even the most conscientious of speakers finds it very difficult to tell the whole truth." Aldous Huxley
President Obama's healthcare address to Congress displayed the oratorical gift he once revealed to Harry Reid. But the gift has stopped giving.
In an updated version of his biography, Senator Reid tells of a conversation he once had with then Senator Obama about a speech Obama delivered on President Bush's war policy. Reid said to Obama, "That speech was phenomenal, Barack." Obama replied, "I have a gift, Harry."
On the campaign trail, Obama's "gift" was his strong suit. His go-to skill. The one that swooned crowds and evoked emotional dedication from his followers. After eight years of a president who was mediocre, at best, in verbal communication, and while in a race against a Republican presidential candidate who displayed no improvement in that sphere, Obama's oratorical skills were, to many, the incarnation of the "change" that was half of his campaign slogan.
In last night's speech before a joint session of Congress, the President pulled all the stops on his vocal organ, played his strong suit, and deployed the "gift." But the gift has stopped giving, because people have started listening.
He was most persuasive at defining the healthcare problem, leaning heavily on anecdotal vignettes describing victims of inadequate healthcare coverage. Then he equated our healthcare problem with the deficit problem. One is dependent on the other, he said.
He accused opponents of using "scare tactics." This came after he'd piled scare tactic upon scare tactic himself to illustrate the problem. The healthcare system is "at the breaking point." It offers "insecurity today." People are dying! Thirty million can't get coverage, he said. Wait, we been told for years that it's 47 million. What happened to the other seventeen?
He wants a plan that "builds on what works and fixes what doesn't." The only problem is that doesn't jibe with the thousand-plus pages of H.R. 3200 that have been read by too many Americans. His description of limited reform doesn't match the bill.
Healthcare reform will only impact, he said, five percent of the population. When he said, "While there remain some significant details to be ironed out," we heard something unique in recent joint Congressional speech history. Derisive laughter at a President from the opposition side of the chamber. The faces of Pelosi and Biden, seated behind Obama, said they weren't among the amused.
It was the perfect moment for non-partisan conciliatory language, but Obama pulled out brass knuckles and attacked "bogus claims" made by opponents to the plan. What plan still wasn't clear? H.R. 3200? Or, his intentions for a healthcare plan he was revealing, or claimed to be revealing, in the speech? He seemed not to want to differentiate between the two, but yet to differentiate between the two. Conflicted, for sure, and intentionally, also for sure. A shell game of hide the plan. Criticize H.R. 3200 and you're not being fair because that's not what he wants to have happen.
The "bogus claims" were the opponents' "cynical and irresponsible" references to death panels for senior citizens; coverage for illegal immigrants -- South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson yelled "Lie!" and made Biden cinch-up his neck; coverage for abortions; and the bogus claim that the plan (what plan, whose plan?) meant government control of the nation's healthcare system.
He professed belief that "consumers do better with choice and competition." This comes as Ford competes against a General Motors and Chrysler that received tens of billions of dollars of government aid. And, even at that, Ford is winning the competition.
A key moment came when he re-endorsed a "not-for-profit public option." Only five percent would sign up, he said. Where did that number come from? And this, he claimed, would be a "self-sufficient" public option that wouldn't add "one dime" to the deficit. He chose then, and not wisely, to use public colleges as an example of fiscal self-sufficiently. Nevermind that the tuition at those institutions has been climbing steadily over recent years.
Then came that surreal moment when he said that spending cuts in a healthcare program -- one that the government already badly manages -- would cover additional costs to a even wider system. And, if the promised savings don't materialize, there'll be compensating cuts. Meanwhile, the camera focused on Congressman Charlie Rangel (D. NY) who, although he's nearing 80, is able to tap dance around paying his taxes, with a smile. This is bad comedy.
And bad religion too, since, miracle of miracles, the 900 billion dollar cost over 10 years is covered by just a one-tenth of one percent reduction in spending on the existing healthcare system (that, of course, the government won't be controlling) that will, he said, equal a savings of four trillion dollars over the "long run" (Is that in dog years?). Of course, extra fees on the health insurance companies will also defer some of the additional costs.
About the time we were swimming in a sea of uncorroborated vagaries and smothering beneath layered non sequitur claims, he rolled out the memory of Ted Kennedy and the camera panned in on the widow. Out came the "moral issue" that the late Senator Kennedy said reflects the "character of our country." A character lesson from Ted! Who could have predicted that?
It transitioned to the recollection of how government once-upon-a-time assumed the responsibility for the Social Security of the elderly. Too bad no one stood and said, "Social Security is bankrupt!"
So, it was lofty oratory built on unsubstantiated claims; emotionally sustained by anecdotal tugs on the heart strings; punctuated with vague statistics; culminating in the remembrance of a liberal icon; that led to the invocation of that paradigm of welfare programs that's gone completely haywire.
"There is nothing in the world like a persuasive speech to fuddle the mental apparatus and upset the convictions and debauch the emotions of an audience not practiced in the tricks and delusions of oratory." Mark Twain