President Barack Obama’s Healthcare Speech: “A” on Delivery; C+ on Substance

–Richard E. Vatz

President Obama’s speech tonight was a tour de force if you admire exquisite rhetoric. If your criteria for evaluation include fair and comprehensive addressing of contentious issues, the speech was somewhat less than that.

The president’s clarity and emphasis are simply nonpareil. The three best presidential speakers of the last 50 years are Presidents John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. I would hate to bet my life on which was the best in terms of elocution.

President Obama covered in some detail the need for healthcare reform on which all centrist Democrats and Republicans agree: catastrophic coverage, coverage for pre-existing ailments and portability.

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On the more contentious matters, he played just a little fast and loose. He claimed that those happy with their current insurance would not lose it, but he gave no guarantee that competition with a possible “public option” would not result in just that.

He addressed – quickly, and in some cases, abruptly – the concern regarding government healthcare’s covering abortion and being available to illegal immigrants. He gave no evidence of how such coverage would or could be proscribed.

The president appeared to make a concession regarding tort reform and the need for physicians to avoid the costly practice of overly defensive medicine. But in three sentences he promised only this: for those who believe that “reforming our medical malpractice laws can help bring down the cost of healthcare…I am proposing that we move forward on a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first and let doctors focus on practicing medicine… I know that the Bush Administration considered authorizing demonstration projects in individual states to test these issues. It’s a good idea, and I am directing my Secretary of Health and Human Services to move forward on this initiative today.” We shall see how far this important initiative gets.

The president, while assuring that he would not sign a bill that would add to the deficit, did not even address the overwhelming new coverage afforded those with interpersonal problems and general problems in living, as long as they receive a psychiatric label. This will add billions and billions to the cost of healthcare. No matter. No mention.

Seventy to eighty percent of the public is satisfied with their health coverage, and the president is banking on the fact that, given his charisma, people will be willing to risk its stability by supporting his plan.

Some of the public’s particular concerns, such as portability and non-cancelability (to perhaps create a term), may be accomplished without putting extant insurance at risk. However, even with perfect eloquence and oratorical flare, President Obama’s healthcare speech substantively should reassure no one with insurance that a public option is not a serious threat to that coverage or that healthcare reform will not be prohibitively costly.

**Addendum: Rep. Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican who rudely and indefensibly yelled out “you lie!” when the President addressed immigration, apologized. He should apologize again…it was just appalling, and, rhetorically speaking, such childish rhetoric helps the president.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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