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The Speech as Rhetorical Device

I want to add some comments about the speech as a purely rhetorical event. That is, I want to set aside the policy arguments to judge Obama’s performance (and some of those in the congressional audience) as a performance.

For starters, the finish was quite powerful. Obama’s great strength, as any good politician’s, is putting complex and difficult policies and choices into very simple, and traditionally American terms. He did a splendid job of contextualizing this debate in terms of the past and the future, in terms of the size and role of government and when government acts well and acts boldly.

Second, the president surely angered some on the left with his point about the goal of what a public option would bring—access to affordable insurance to those who presently cannot afford it or have no access—rather than defending the option as a non-negotiable. He may need to give that away to corner in his opponents, or rather, to give them a “victory” as a takeaway to boast about to their constituents.

“You lie.” It is so rare to hear politicians use this word. We hear every other variation—untrue, twisted, spun, misleading. It was nice to see Obama call to the carpet liars who lie to distort and distract from the debate. That took guts to say, but it was pleasing to hear the talk radio blabbers get chumped down. They deserve it; it was long overdue.

I’m biased, because I’ve used this metaphor myself for years (including on conservative talk radio), but I simply loved the analogy, however imperfect, between uninsured citizens and uninsured motorists. Not sure how the White House computed the $1,000 figure for the costs to the insured created by those without insurance, but that is a powerful talking point.

What continues to be the weakest rhetorical claim—if only because it’s so unclear—is how reform with mostly pay for itself and, at most, cost $900 billion over 10 years. It was great to compare that to the costs racked up on the debt for Iraq and tax cuts for the wealthy—watching sourpuss Republican faces at that moment, as they choked down yet again on Bush-era policies was precious—but the details of how it’s going to cost so little are not clear to me, and I’m sure not to millions of other Americans. I wish Obama would specify just how.

As for the Republicans, the rumor is that Rep. Joe Wilson (SC) was the person who called the president a liar in the middle of the speech. I’m watching CNN, which has not yet confirmed. Apparently, Rep. Louie Gohmert was holding up a sign. (I think it said “What Bill?” but am not sure.) UPDATE: It was Wilson who called Obama a liar. The South Carolina congressman was chastised, including by some in his own party, not to mention mocked; he has since issued an apology.

And Rep. Charles Boustany, who gave the GOP response? His speech was actually pretty good, given how little time he had. He was right about encouraging wellness and preventative care. But it’s amazing to hear a Republican talk about making sure that every American has access to health care regardless of pre-existing conditions. If the GOP really means that, Obama can hold their feet to the fire and ask him them either (a) how they plan to do that via the insurance companies; or (b) failing that, how they will do it without having some sort of public option when the insurance companies refuse to cover those who have potentially costly pre-existing conditions that no premium amount would ever cover.