The President Spoke. What Did People Hear? What Will Congress Do? : It's All Politics President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on Wednesday evening, trying to push lawmakers into passing an overhaul of the nation's health care system. The question: Did he make any progress?
NPR logo The President Spoke. What Did People Hear? What Will Congress Do?

The President Spoke. What Did People Hear? What Will Congress Do?

It is impossible to figure out precisely what happened last night.

I mean, there is the easy stuff to explain, of course. We know, for example, that President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on the importance of overhauling the nation's health-care program. We know that in his approximately 45 minute speech, the president laid out the case — his case — why the status quo is not acceptable, why the combination of rising costs and millions uninsured is doing great harm to the nation. We know that Democrats liked what they heard, and that Republicans, with some exceptions, did not.

We even heard one GOP member, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, yell out at one point, "You lie" — or something to that effect. That came in response to Obama's insistence that illegal immigrants will not be covered by these proposals, which many Republicans frankly doubt. Even after witnessing an August filled with town-hall meeting rancor, the incident was extremely disturbing.

(Wilson later apologized, saying he "let my emotions get the best of me," adding that his comments "were inappropriate and regrettable" that lacked "civility." To say the least.)

And there was, to no surprise, the constant occurrences of Democrats on their feet, Republicans staying put in their seats.

But what actually happened? What minds were changed? What votes shifted? Did the chances for passage change in any pronounced way?

Who knows?

The speech, I thought, was vintage Obama. Complete command of the issue, excellent cadence and pace. The reach out, as expected, to the GOP to join him half way, while standing firm on his beliefs and denouncing what he saw as the "politics" of division.

In many ways, the Obama speech was similar to what we heard from another president, Bill Clinton, in his address to Congress in September of 1993. The situation back then wasn't much different. Republicans had lost the presidency less than a year earlier and were not especially a bunch of happy campers. A new Democratic president, speaking to a Democratic congressional majority, imploring them to change the system.

I remember watching that speech, watching a confident President Clinton in complete control, and feeling pretty sure that the odds of something concrete happening with health care improved dramatically.

And I was wrong.

Obama had several audiences he was trying to reach on Wednesday night. The American people, of course, who as we saw in vivid detail last month in town-hall meetings around the country have many questions — and much misinformation — about what is being proposed. Polls show that his job approval numbers have tumbled dramatically ove the past month, a lot to do with confusion over his health-care proposals.

Last night the president did try, on numerous occasions, to send out his share of bouquets to Republicans. The specific and positive reach out to John McCain. A line about medical malpractice costs, a big GOP bugaboo. Reminding Sens. Hatch, McCain and Grassley of their work with Ted Kennedy, who made health care his life's work.

But, aside from Olympia Snowe of Maine, how many other Republicans might possibly vote for it? Susan Collins? George Voinovich? Even Snowe released a statement shortly after the speech, saying that while she and the president share some common goals, she didn't care for Obama's call for a public option. Not a good sign.

It's clear that while Obama could very well get enough Senate Democrats to pass a plan without a single Republican vote, that's not what he wants. He has said from the outset that he wants to create a bipartisan majority on this, and he seems to mean it — even if Republicans question his approach. Getting Snowe on board may be less numerically significant and more symbolically significant.

And then of course there is the family feud afflicting the Democrats that obviously was a focus of Obama's words. There are the liberals, such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who insist on a governmental "public option." There's Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus, who says its inclusion will doom its chances in the Senate. And let us not forget the Democrats who won historically Republican districts in 2006 and 2008 because of voter disgust with the Bush administration policies. Those seats could quickly revert to their GOP leanings if the Obama health-care plan implodes.

The appeal to complete Ted Kennedy's wish, the outburst by Joe Wilson, those will be the more memorable moments of the evening. More memorable, of course, will be is if it leads to a departure from the system we have now.

A defining moment for his presidency, it has been written of Obama's speech. We'll see.