Republicans have not welcomed the idea that their opposition has been a matter of political calculation. They fought back when the White House labeled the town-hall protests an “orchestrated” charade financed by the insurance industry (even as the Mr. Obama relied on organized labor and Democratic Party e-mail lists to rally his supporters to the same events).
In the Republican response Wednesday night, Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., Louisiana Republican and a heart surgeon, said he thinks “it’s clear the American people want health care reform, but they want their elected leaders to get it right.”
Mr. Boustany said the bill that Democrats passed through committee in July “creates 53 new government bureaucracies, adds hundreds of billions to our national debt, and raises taxes on job-creators by $600 billion. And it cuts Medicare by $500 billion, while doing virtually nothing to make the program better for our seniors.”
By the conclusion of the speech, party affiliations still dictated whether observers agreed that Mr. Obama had learned the lessons of the summer town halls.
Todd Harris, a Republican strategist, said he considered the president’s speech to be long on bold rhetoric but short on leadership.
“Even Bill Clinton and Hillary in 1993, they staked out their ground,” Mr. Harris said. “At least they said, this is what we’re going to fight for.”
Democratic strategist Karen Finney disagreed, arguing that the president accomplished the most important goal of the night.
“At the heart of it, what people want to see is him standing up for his plan and laying out a clear vision with details,” she said. “Even if people disagree with the specifics … people are hungry for that leadership.”
Just over a year ago, when Mr. Obama stood before roaring crowds in Denver to accept his party’s nomination for president, his commitment to the nation was that he would be different.
He lamented that “when Washington doesn’t work, all its promises seem empty,” and proclaimed that he would deliver on his vision “of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.”
But over the past month, the vision he laid out that night collided with the realities of governing. Dana Perino, who served as President George W. Bush’s press secretary, said it was a reality his administration was repeatedly forced to confront from both sides of the aisle.
When Mr. Bush pushed Congress to adopt his proposed Social Security reforms in 2005, Democrats rallied to hand the president a defeat, while Republicans “fought so much internally that it caused tension in our own ranks and nothing got solved,” she said. “Sound familiar?”
Speaking to Congress last night, the president urged strident advocates on both sides to come to the middle.
“There are arguments to be made for both approaches,” he said, “but either one would represent a radical shift that would disrupt the health care most people currently have.”
If nothing else, Mr. Obama’s effort to persuade those parties to the middle ground, whether a success or a failure, will provide a lesson for every president to come.
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